hristy undressed in Hally’s tiny bathroom. She only had a shower stall, too. Such a long way from Roman’s opulent sunken tub. The medicine cabinet mirror didn’t reflect below her breasts, so the scars on her belly were thankfully out of sight. She wore Hally’s robe back out, and the other girl kept her back turned until Christy had arranged herself, strategically draping the off-limits portions of her body with scarves left handily nearby.
“Okay,” she said, once she was reasonably sure none of the scars showed.
Hally scrutinized her, her face absorbed. “Don’t hold your breath. Relax.”
Easy for her to say—she wasn’t undressed in broad daylight for the first time in, oh, eleven years.
Bringing a few more pillows to approximate the angle of the painted chaise, Hally tucked them under Christy’s shoulder, coaxing her to lie more on her shoulders, but with her hip turned up so her thigh dropped over in front, hiding the vee at her crotch. When Hally adjusted the scarves, Christy stopped her.
“I’ll do that.”
Hally knelt on the floor in front of her, her lips pursed. Not meeting her gaze, Christy focused on the scarves. “Surgery scars?”
“Something like that.”
“Nothing to be embarrassed about, you know. Our scars reflect that we’ve struggled—and won.”
“How do you know I’ve won?” The words came out in a strained whisper. Such a small thing, to yank her back to that time.
“You’re here, aren’t you? That’s a win every time. When you’re ready, stretch your arms over your head and turn your face toward me.”
Christy did, lying her cheek against her arm. Hally frowned at her.
“Something’s not quite right. Can you cross your wrists and stretch them up more?”
She followed suit, feeling how the more strained position raised her breasts, her nipples peaking taut even in the warm apartment.
“Now think of him.”
Hally didn’t have to specify—they both knew who she meant. She let herself think of the Master, imagined lying naked in front of him, her wrists tied over her head. The desire for him, never completely cooled, simmered between her legs.
“Yes,” Hally breathed. “Exactly.”
Being painted gave her time to think in a way that lying by Roman’s pool hadn’t. She held still, thinking of the phantom and his mysterious ways, of what he had and had not asked of her. Though she never doubted he could be dangerous, her gut insisted he’d told the truth about Tara. He wanted something else from Christy.
He wanted this.
And, lying there while Hally captured her languid desire for the unknown, Christy wanted him to have it.
She wanted to be his Christine.
The next morning, Carla confronted Christy as soon as she arrived at work, sizing up her too-expensive slacks. With her grubby jeans gone and her only other pair too dirty to wear again before laundry day, Christy had chosen the best of several unhappy options. It would be more than a relief to get her things out of storage and stop living out of a suitcase. Until then, she had only so much to work with.
“Carla, I’m really sorry about the other night. I, um, just—”
Carla held up a talk-to-the-hand palm and looked to the heavens, shaking her head.
“You know, I tried to give you a chance. ‘Maybe she’s not a spoiled rich girl,’ I said to myself. And then I ask you to help me with one little thing. Twenty minutes of your precious time, and what happens? You run off to take a
Christy cringed under the lash of Carla’s scorn. Stupidest excuse on the face of the earth.
“I don’t want to hear your apologies. I want you to know that I asked Charlie to let you go.”
“You—you did?” Misery welled up. All the starry-eyed fantasies about seeing her ghost again shriveled up in the stark light of Carla’s anger.
“Of course I did. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t have lasted that first week. Hell,” Carla laughed bitterly, “you would never have been accepted in the first place. Do you realize you’ve taken the place of people who’ve sweated and worked their way for a chance at an apprenticeship here? And you flounce about here, like some fancy accessory we can’t afford.”
“I want to work hard! I—”
“You don’t know how.” Carla pronounced her verdict as the worst insult possible. It hung in the air between them, mean and rotten. “You’re soft fruit. A hothouse flower that won’t thrive in the real world. Go home to Daddy.”
. That resolve straightened her spine. No matter what happened with this job, she would never live under her father’s roof again. He could cut her off, but she was a legal adult in every way. He couldn’t force her to do anything.
Not unless they think you’re crazy.
But she wasn’t a scared adolescent any longer. She had grown up, into a calm, reasonable, and determined adult.
“Am I fired then?” She made her voice as even as possible. She’d find another job. Hally would help her. Other people did it and so could she.
“No,” Charlie said, coming down the hall. “Which I told you, Carla.”
She stiffened, planting her hands on her hips. “We agreed she’d be on probation.”
“Yes, and we also agreed that I’d discuss it with her.” Charlie, several inches shorter that Carla, even in his heeled cowboy boots, returned her furious stare with equanimity. “Didn’t we?”
Carla threw up her hands in exasperation. “You’re a goddamn pushover, Charlie Donovan. Always a sucker for a pretty face.”
Charlie grinned at her. “You know it, darling. And good thing for you and your pretty face.”
She grimaced at him but, shockingly, giggled when Charlie shooed her along with a pat on the ass. She actually fluttered her lashes at him and then sauntered down the hall, Charlie watching her go with exasperated admiration.
“My wife has quite a temper, but she makes up for that failing in other ways.”
“I, um, had no idea.”
“Why would you? It shouldn’t come up in the work place.”
“It must be kind of hard to work together.”
“Yes and no. The good outweighs the bad. Now,” he fixed his faded denim-blue eyes on her, “you want to tell me what really happened the other night?”
“Detective Sanchez didn’t tell you?”
“Oh, he relayed your story, all right. Along with his opinion that there’s a lot you’re not telling.”
Christy shifted her bag, wishing she’d had the chance to at least unlock her office door and set her things down. “I’ve thought and thought and I don’t know what else to say.”
He nodded, scratched his bristly chin. “Did you know all the cameras went out?”
Feeling her eyes widen, Christy pressed her lips together and shook her head.
“Sure did. There’s you, watching Carla wheel that totem pole out, and pffft,” he chopped a hand down, “nothing but static. Every camera in the building became a pricey piece of metal and plastic.”
“Yeah. That’s what Detective Sanchez said, only in more colorful terms. His people seem to think some kind of massive electrical pulse fried ’em all simultaneously. The Board is going after the company guys who did the install, though they’ve inspected and they say nothing is wrong.” Charlie shrugged and tucked his thumbs in the loops of his jeans. “They’ll sort it out. Meanwhile, the cameras still aren’t working, so keep that in mind.”
“Okay.” Christy searched for something else to say—
about the chandelier—and dug in her bag for her keys instead.
“Any more encounters with the ghost?”
“What?” The keys dropped from her suddenly nerveless fingers and plummeted into the depths of her bag.
. She looked up and Charlie leaned in, bracing an elbow on the doorway and propping his head on his hand. The position created a kind of privacy shield around them. One Christy strongly wanted to step out of.
“I watched one of those Discovery Channel shows and they said ghosts can do that—some kind of electromagnetic pulse that zaps our electronics. Got me to thinking about what you said, and the singing. Our conversation over lunch that day.”
“Surely you don’t believe that’s what’s going on here.” At last her fingers found her keys again. She had to kind of duck under Charlie’s arm to fit them into the lock, but she did it anyway, relieved to escape through the opened door.
“I think there’s room in this world for all sorts of explanations. If you encountered the ghost, I hope that you’d tell me about it.”
“So you could do what, Charlie?” She dropped her bag on the desk with a thunk of exasperation. “Call in the Ghostbusters?”
“Or a shaman. There are some working ones around here.”
“The spirit world is nothing to toy with. Damn straight I’m serious. Serious as a heart attack.” He grinned crookedly.
“Don’t say that.”
“See—you’re as superstitious as any of us. All this,” he waved a hand in the air, “started with you. I think you’re at the center of it, somehow. Carla thinks so, too, though she wouldn’t put it in the same words.”
“It didn’t start with me.” She took a drink from her water bottle to salve her dry mouth. “Tara disappeared before I was even hired.”
“Aha!” Charlie held up a finger. “But
your dad called about putting you on the roster.”
She ran a shaky hand through her hair. Oh. “What are you saying?”
“I think our ghost likes you,
“Well.” She neatly stacked her supplies. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I have not met any ghosts.” Because the Master was definitely flesh and blood, whatever else he might be. That much she was sure of. Pretty much.
“What are you saying?” She let her Davis temper flare.
Don’t hesitate to let them know when they’ve pissed you off. Most people back down from confrontation.
“Are you asking me to leave—am I fired after all? Because this back and forth is getting tiresome.”
Charlie only smiled, a quiet, closed-lipped grimace. But then, he had to face Carla over the breakfast table. “I’m not in a hurry to anger Carlton Davis, or one of our patron families—or our resident theater ghost either. I was raised to have respect for these things.”
Somehow she knew he mainly meant the last one.
“You’d do well to think about that.”
fter Charlie left, Christy sat on the cracked vinyl of her ancient office chair for a moment, toying with the silver spiral pendant and staring at the poster on the opposite wall. Torn, and from a season ten years past, it glowed with sunset colors. The graceful golden lines of the opera-house roof seemed part of the landscape, as if it had grown there.
A good artist could do that—make it seem as if a construct hadn’t been built but rather had evolved naturally.
With its own resident spirit, it seemed.
“Ready, boss?” Matt punctuated his cheerful greeting with a knock on the door frame that made her jump, and he grinned, wagging a finger at her. “Daydreaming about Ryan Gosling again? And after a bonus day off, too. That’s not the workaholic I’ve come to know and love.”
Christy snorted. “Ryan Gosling is
Matt patted his chest with fluttering fingers. “I wish! Though I’d do Emma Stone, too. Think they’d be up for a three-way?”
“With you? They’d be fools to say no.”
“That’s what I say. Okay, so here’s what I did while you were off gallivanting.”
By the end of the day, Christy had made up her mind.
She waved good-bye to Matt and stopped in to see if Carla needed any help—anything to try to patch things up—but the prop shop was dark, thankfully. The door to Charlie’s office stood closed and locked, too, with no light showing beneath. Making a good show of it, she exited with a few of the carpenters from the scene shop and drove off in a mini caravan with several of them.
Then she drove around and parked in the big patron lot, but behind a Dumpster, so it wouldn’t be obvious. Through a long succession of texts, she’d convinced Roman that she planned to go down to the mall in Albuquerque, to bypass the Santa Fe boutiques and buy new jeans, among other things. He’d sent her a couple of unhappy faces but perked up when she agreed to dinner the next night and Sunday church and dinner with his family.
If things didn’t go well Thursday—or if they went really well with the Master in between—she’d beg off the family deal.
This juggling men thing wasn’t easy.
Especially when one of the men was . . . whatever the Master was.
She snuck back in through the backstage apron, letting herself in quietly, then sat in her office pretending to work until the opera house settled into its familiar evening silence.
With a sense of fluttering anticipation, she fixed her lipstick and gathered her things, thumbing off her phone. She’d made a preemptive call to her father earlier, so he shouldn’t be looking for her. Mentally, she ticked off all the points to make sure she wouldn’t be missed tonight. Sneaking around took great attention to detail.
Turning off the lights behind her and armed with her flashlight, she headed down the spiral staircase.
As she descended, the clinks and whispers of the cooling opera house swirled together in its nighttime song. Weaving up through it, a golden thread reeling her in like a fish hooked on a line, came the phantom’s song.
Her body warmed and her blood fluttered in the soft points under her jaw. He seemed to know she was coming to him. Everything in her focused into a sharp point of anticipation. Soon she would see him again.
Anything could happen.
The song intensified as she reached the lowest level, though it still drifted just out of reach of her comprehension. Shining the flashlight on the door, dust motes filtering through the narrow beam that was the only light in the massive building, the emblem carved in it stood out in sharp relief. A whip and a collar.
From the first day, she’d wanted to know what it meant. Now she would.
A whisper of sound.
Then his voice. From nowhere and everywhere.
It shivered over her, her nipples peaking, as if he’d touched her with more than his honeyed voice.
“Kill the light, my love.”
Of course. The beam winked out and she set the now useless object on the floor.
“Place your hands on the door, please.”
In a daze of rising desire, she did, unsure of why it rocked her so to do such a simple thing. Her palms pressed against the gritty surface, which felt carved from some soft stone. Silk whispered against her face, a blindfold sliding into place, then tied tightly. She whimpered a little, her control slipping away, and gloved fingers brushed her cheek.
“Shh. Trust me. You’ve come to me for this, yes?”
She nodded. He waited.
“Yes,” she finally answered aloud.
“Then come.” He took her hand.
The opening door barely made a sound. The sensitive acoustics, though, picked it up and murmured back the echo of stone scraping in protest. He led her back the way they’d come two nights before and, though she tried to memorize the twists and turns, counted the stairs, she soon lost track.
Alice falling down the rabbit hole. But of her own free will.
She knew when they entered his domain, though no sound alerted her to their entry. Once he removed the blindfold, she blinked at the unchanged room, lit by candles, the chaise Hally had somehow known to paint sitting in the center. In front of the fire, a table set for two waited, white tapers in a silver candelabra gracing the center.
“Are you hungry?”
His hand brushed the small of her back and she looked up at him now, the carved lips under the black half mask, blue eyes bright with excitement behind it.
“I don’t know if I should.”
His eyes dimmed a little, shadowed with disappointment. “Why did you come to me if you don’t trust me to care for you?”
“It’s not that.”
. “It’s more that I feel as if I’ve crossed into another world and that if I eat or drink anything here . . .” She trailed off, feeling foolish.
“That, like Persephone, you’ll be trapped with the lord of the underworld.”
She nodded. “Too much theater, I guess.”
“Understandable.” He gazed around the room. “I am king of all I survey here, yet I am a prisoner of it also. You perceive more than you realize.”
“Yes. Here.” He laid a gloved hand over her heart, nearly cupping her breast, and her nipples rose inside her bra. But he didn’t trespass further. Instead he took her hands in both of his and raised them, kissing each in turn. “I swear to you, Christine, that you may always pass back and forth between the worlds. Though I may be trapped in certain ways, you are not. You enjoy a freedom I do not. I shall always be your willing companion, as long as you’ll have me.”
“Oh.” Warmth bloomed through her at the declaration. It all seemed impossibly romantic, in a way she’d always wanted to believe in. A way the hard lessons of the world wouldn’t let her. This, however, was another place.
“Would you care to change for dinner?” He gazed into her face, asking more than that.
“Um, sure. Do you have something for me to change into?”
He gestured to a screen in one corner, one of those old-fashioned kind, with lacy panels tied with pink ribbons to the wooden frame. Stepping behind it, she found a rack of costumes—some from operas she could name, others from a different imagination. Ball gowns, negligees, a slave girl costume, something made of bands of black leather. It was Cinderella mashed-up with
Story of O
“What should I put on?” she called through the screen.
He chuckled. “You choose. From that I’ll know your mood and we can work from there. Take your time.”
Okay. Not the black leather or slave girl outfit then.
, a titillated part of her whispered. She sorted through the gowns, something to match the fairy-tale feel, and found one in emerald satin, with a draped neckline, a corset bodice, and a belled skirt. High matching heels sat beneath it.
She shucked out of her pants and sweatshirt, hanging them on a hook, then added her bra, because the off-the-shoulder gown wouldn’t allow for it. The bodice wasn’t easy to manage, but she laced it up as best she could. The stays clasped her ribs securely, lifting her breasts with demi cups. The tight sleeves went to her shoulders and a sweep of demure satin covered most of her naked breasts. Her cleavage, however, rose higher than she’d ever seen it, the silver spiral pendant nestled just so. In the oak-framed, full-length mirror, she looked lush and womanly.
Stepping into the shoes, she felt aware of her bare legs beneath the hoop of the skirt. The Master turned when she came out, his gaze sweeping her with warm desire.
“A fine choice.”
The bodice slipped a little, and she pressed the cloth to her breasts. “I’m not sure I laced it right.”
She gave him her back and he loosened the laces, the gown sagging a bit so she held the fabric clutched to her breasts. Then, working from the bottom, he tightened the corset around her waist, the constriction rising through her chest. By the time he finished, her nipples throbbed from the strangely arousing intimacy of him lacing her into the gown. Laces she surely could not undo herself.
“I can’t breathe,” she protested.
His hot lips grazed the nape of her neck and his gloved hands drifted over her collarbone, feathering over the upper curves of her breast, displayed more than ever. She knew he must be looking down her cleavage, which made her even more flushed and breathless.
“Yes you can,” he murmured, his mouth traveling to her ear. “Don’t fight the gown. Give in to it and relax.”
While she concentrated on that, he led her to the table and held her chair. She perched on the edge, the skirt billowing around her so she had to tuck it down. Corsets don’t allow one to slouch, she discovered, so she sat straight, her breasts outthrust like an offering. From the way her dinner companion watched her, the view wasn’t lost on him.
He poured golden wine in their glasses, then held his up in a toast. “To new journeys.”
She murmured agreement and clinked glasses with him, aware that he watched her sip from hers, that he relaxed fractionally when she did.
“You are a beautiful woman, Christine. Thank you for coming to me.”
The compliment both pleased and unsettled her. No one had ever called her beautiful—except for Roman in his toasts, and that seemed different—and she felt sure it wasn’t true. Pretty or attractive, maybe. But never beautiful. Still, the way he said it made her believe that he, at least, meant it in all sincerity.
She toyed with the salad on her plate. “Where does the food come from, if you never leave the opera house?”
“There are more realities than you know. They intersect in many ways.”
“Does that even make sense?”
He lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. “It does to me. You will understand in time.”
“I don’t know about that—I’m still not sure why I’m here.”
“Aren’t you? Isn’t it because I asked it of you?”
“I don’t do everything everyone asks of me.”
“Not everyone. Me.” His ice-blue eyes darkened with intent. “I want you to do what
ask of you.”
She ate some salad to distract herself from the way her panties dampened at the thought. The corset clamped her tightly and her head swam.
“I don’t think I understand.”
“I think you do. But tell me your reasons for being here with me, if not because I asked it of you.”
“Curiosity. I want to know more about you.”
“Give yourself over to me and you will.”
“Exactly what does that mean?”
“It’s the ultimate expression of trust. When we are together, you do what I ask. Anything I ask.”
“What if I don’t like it?”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“I know you, Christine. I feel your heart and what dark pleasures will thrill you most. Trust me in this.”
“I’m trusting you with everything already.”
“Yes. I need that from you.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Her salad was gone, so she laid down her fork.
He rose, took her salad plate, and set it on a nearby buffet, then stood behind her.
“Clasp your hands in your lap.”
Heart accelerating, she did.
His gloved hands settled on her bare shoulders, easing her back in the chair. With calming caresses he smoothed the skin of her throat. She sighed, closing her eyes. The touches, soothing and arousing, dropped lower. Her breasts, already full and tight, seemed to swell in anticipation. Would he draw the satin down and bare them?
Both afraid and hopeful that he would, she waited. The soft leather covering his hands traced the full curves above her nipples, the fine cloth just hanging off of them. She moaned, dropping her head back against the chair, and felt the cooler air as the fabric fell away.
“So very beautiful,” he whispered. “I want you to stay this way while we finish our dinner, so I can gaze on your loveliness and you can find out how it feels to do what I ask of you. Will you do that?”
She opened her eyes to find his, sparking blue above her.
“I want you to say, ‘yes, Master.’ ”
She blinked, uncertain. He caressed her cheek with a smile. “When you are ready, then.”
He went to the buffet and arranged food on plates. Feeling odd sitting there with her breasts naked above the green gown that otherwise bound her so tightly, she sipped her wine. Her thoughts and emotions seemed to dance out of reach, beyond analysis. The desire, though, stayed as real and true as the heartbeat pounding in her chest.
“Why can’t I call you by your name?”
“That is my name.”
“That’s a title, not a name.”
“What are names but the way we are defined? I am called by what I am.”
Setting a plate before her, he took his back to his place and sat.