Some curses exist in secret, but some cannot be hidden from view. For a woman like Paulette, one glance in the mirror will remind her how monstrous she will always appear to others. But when she stumbles into the netherworld of the notorious Paris Opera House and encounters a sinister man even more deformed than she, she learns that things are not always as they seem. Of all the men she’s come across, only this man has been able—or willing—to see her for the beauty she is. The frightening yet hopeful bond they forge might be just enough to prove that some curses—though unbreakable—may be overcome.
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“Marcos is a masterful storyteller.”
—TERESA MEDEIROS, New York Times bestselling author
“When I want a great historical romance, I’ll reach for anything by Michelle Marcos!”
—LISA KLEYPAS, New York Times bestselling author
The mind is a strange thing. Even in the throes of mortal dread, images can take shape. I had a dream that I had died in the water, and an angel dressed in black fell in the water with me. His lovely face was porcelain white, and he lifted me in his black wings and carried me to heaven. The angel placed me in a golden bed, and I slept and slept and slept.
It was in the midst of this dream that I awoke. My eyes fluttered open, and I thought myself to be in heaven. I stirred in the bed, and took a deep breath. A coughing fit wracked my body, and the dull pain in my chest convinced me I was not spirit, but corporeal still. The air sputtering out of my lungs tasted foul, like old garbage, and I was forced to suppress a wave of nausea. When the spasms had subsided, I wiped the warm tears from my eyes and looked around.
The bed on which I lay was draped with sheets of smooth blue satin. A net of sheerest voile hung from somewhere above the bedpost and cascaded all around the bed. Through it, I could see rich Persian fabrics adorning the walls. Scattered about the room was the most ornate furniture I have ever seen; it seemed more theatrical than merely luxurious. The air was filled with a sweet fragrance, which no doubt emanated from the bouquet of fresh gardenias resting on the bedside table. My surroundings reminded me of a Turkish harem, for I had read of such places. Spread upon the bed was a woman’s dressing gown – elegant but garish, like a costume. I called out, but no one answered. Hastily, I peeled off my wet dress. I retained my undergarments, still damp but warm, and poured the gown around me, grateful for its concealing thickness. I then pulled back the heavy curtains, for there was no door, and ventured out.
The Phantom was there.
It stood in the center of the room, a profusion of candles illuminating the stern-looking mask.
“Are you well?” It asked, with a hint of concern that was hard to ignore.
“Yes, thank you,” I heard myself respond.
It turned around, and began to pour something out of a bottle. I stole the opportunity to study this strange creature more. Its black hair was straight and combed flat against its head. The cloak was gone; what remained were an impeccable black tailcoat and trousers, and a snow-white cravat. Its clothes suggested a fashion of an earlier decade, as if time had stopped on a single day long ago. It was tall, perhaps extraordinarily so, and it was possessed of a physique that was as striking as it was masculine. Here was no spectre; this was a man.
He turned back towards me and drew near. Nervously, I clutched my gown to my bosom and took a step back. Towering over me, he stopped at arm’s length and held out a crystal goblet. Now that he was so near, I had hoped to see his face. Alas for me, I stood in shadow, and now so did he.
“Drink this,” he said, that strange voice echoing in this vast chamber. With trembling fingers, I took the proffered glass.
He remained there, that frightening white mask glowing even in this dark corner, looking down upon me. I brought the goblet to my lips and drank. The brandy burned as it went down, but it filled me with a suffused warmth that at once dispelled the preternatural chill and calmed my frayed nerves.
I returned the glass and thanked him, but he merely turned and walked toward the tray.
“Monsieur, if you please, what am I doing here?”
Though he was turned away, I could see him tense. “That is the very question I should like to put to you, mademoiselle.”
I blushed hotly, thankful he could not see me.
“Draw near the light.” His commanding tone brooked no refusal, so I obeyed. “Tell me your name.”
I did so. The mask, frozen in a perpetual scowl, covered almost his entire face, exposing only his mouth and chin.
“Tell me, Mademoiselle de Sauvoigny, who sent you to spy upon me? And I warn you, I’ll know if you’re lying.”
I stared at the glowering face with growing panic. “No one, monsieur. I was lost. One moment I was in the theatre, and the next I was…here.”
“You do not convince me, mademoiselle, for you are plainly leaving out a great deal. What brought you down here?”
There was much I did not want to tell this man, particularly the information he sought. I was resolved not to confess the frightful ridiculing I underwent in the opera pit.
“There is nothing to tell, monsieur. I was taking a stroll about the opera house, and before I knew it, I was in an unfamiliar wing. I could not find my way back, and so…”
His voice boomed across the room like the roar of a lion. “Do not toy with me, young woman, or you shall find yourself lost forever!”
I shook as his anger pulsed through me, and for the second time that day, I began to cry.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. He flew to my side and bent his head until his mask was but inches away from my face. Staring keenly into my eyes, he murmured with a hint of discovery, “Pain…not fear in your eyes…but pain…”
“Please, monsieur, it is nothing,” I said as I wiped my face, uncomfortable he could read me so. My pain and my humiliation had always been unwelcome companions, but familiar ones. Even so, they were an intimate part of me, as much as my breasts or my thighs, and I never let others see them.
“Share it with me,” he said.
It was what I had longed for as long as I could remember – someone with whom to commiserate. A troubled spirit is a bane to anyone, but infinitely more so to one who must endure it alone. Now that I had an audience, however, I still could not unburden myself. Humiliation is an insidious torture. It is, by its nature, a solitary punishment. To share the pain is to divulge its source, and that is unthinkable.
“There is no need to hide your feelings here, mademoiselle. This underground kingdom is both a monument to pain and a sanctuary from it. I assure you, whatever troubles you will not plague you here.”
At that moment, the stinging humiliation, the loneliness, and yes, the pain – all vanished. In that horrible, magical instant, a current of understanding passed between us. I felt as if some great chasm had been spanned, as another human soul reached out to touch mine.
“It should be fairly obvious, monsieur,” I said with my well-practiced, self-deprecating laugh. “I am fat as a pig. I roll like an ale casket. I cause earthquakes when I walk to market…” Even as I spoke these words, taunts I had heard a million times, they rang hollow to me, and I realized that this was not at all what made me sad. In the candor of the moment, I felt foolish hiding underneath the epithets that others hurled at me. “And I find that I do not like people very much.”
In the silence between us, the wind groaned through the catacombs, sounding for all the world like a suffering animal.
“What have they done to you?” The tenderness in his voice reached out to me.
I whispered my response.
“They made me into a monster.”
The Phantom arched slowly, as if someone had plunged a dagger into his back. His ragged breath fell from his lips. I hung my head, afraid to show my face. The confession of my ugliness stripped me of what little pride I had remaining, and I suddenly felt excruciatingly naked. I had given something away that I could never take back.
His hand reached under my chin and tilted my face upwards. The sensation of his warm fingertips electrified me; no man had ever touched me, let alone in so familiar a fashion. He shook his head.
“With each passing age, I become more amazed with humanity, and yet more horrified by humans. How callous they have become to demonize one so undeserving. You have said it, mademoiselle: monsters are not born, but made. By the scorn of others for faults unworthy of contempt. Pity those who look upon you with hatred.”
Pity? I had heard many things about the nefarious Phantom of the Opera, but pity did not characterize any of them. Wasn’t this the person who murdered dozens of people over a possessive infatuation with a beautiful opera singer? Isn’t this the man who punished with death anyone who dared ridicule or even countermand him? And yet I keenly felt the absence of his fingertips on my face.
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