by M. L. Rhodes

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Andrea Matthews can't seem to pull herself out of the emotional slump she's been in since her husband's scandalous death a year and a half ago. So when her well-meaning best friend gives her a ticket to see the Phantom of the Opera on stage and encourages her to "start getting out," Andee's not enthusiastic. But from the moment the tall, dark-headed man playing the…  See more details below


Andrea Matthews can't seem to pull herself out of the emotional slump she's been in since her husband's scandalous death a year and a half ago. So when her well-meaning best friend gives her a ticket to see the Phantom of the Opera on stage and encourages her to "start getting out," Andee's not enthusiastic. But from the moment the tall, dark-headed man playing the Phantom steps on stage, she's riveted. He has a confident, sensual power that shakes Andee to her core. She can almost feel his hands stroking her, hear his gritty, erotic voice whispering in her ear. At times it even seems as if his piercing gaze is on her and he's singing for her alone. When the Phantom approaches her in the dark theater after the performance, Andee discovers the magic she felt from him on stage is nothing compared to the emotional and seductive allure he holds in person. This magnetic stranger makes her feel more alive than she's been in months. Yet with her faith still shaken from her husband's secrets, she's not certain she's ready to trust her body and soul to someone who hides in shadow. Who is the man--the real man--behind the mask?

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"Andee! Wait up!"

Dr. Andrea Matthews ushered the last straggling student out of the room, pulled the classroom door shut, and slung her leather tote over her shoulder.

She turned and smiled at the sight of Judy Risso trotting down the columned corridor of Howard Hall, the epicenter of history and political science at Williams University. Her friend's shoulder-length dark curls were wild and wind-blown, and her flowing, geometric print skirt swirled around her legs.

"Hey, Jude, what brings you slumming to the halls of conservative thought?"

"These." Judy huffed to a stop next to Andee and waved two blue slips of paper in the air. "I have tickets to The Phantom of the Opera for tonight over at the Playhouse. It's supposed to be superb. But Russ found out he has to work late, and Dean Parmenter called this afternoon and asked me to attend the Arts Council meeting tonight."

"I thought you weren't going to any more of the Arts Council meetings because the members are 'uptight, elitist pricks.'"

Andee hitched her bag higher on her shoulder and began the long walk across the white marble floor to her office on the other side of the building. Judy's Birkenstocks kept up a shuffle alongside the quiet patter of Andee's low-heeled sling-backs.

"I did, I did. But let's face it, when the dean himself calls, he obviously wants that endowment from the council in a big way, so what can I do?"

"Say no?"

Judy snorted. "I have a mortgage payment to make, thank you very much, not to mention kids' music, sports, and dance lessons. And now with the economy so bad and Russ's job at OptiTec in limbo, I can't afford to pissoff the powers that be."

Andee smiled. "Somehow I doubt the university is going to fire the chair of their Fine Arts Department because she doesn't attend a meeting."

"That just goes to show what you know. Our darling dean believes himself to be an artiste of the first order. We artistic types don't work under the rules of logic like your stuffy lot does. Anyway, I want you to take these tickets to Phantom, find someone to go with, and have fun."

"Thanks for thinking of me, but I haven't been to the theater in years, Jude. It's not really my thing."

Judy grabbed Andee's arm, pulling her to a stop in the middle of the corridor.

Mid-October sun beat down on them through a beveled skylight as Judy's dark eyes welled with concern. "Then make it your thing, Andee. You can't keep hiding away in the halls of academia by day and at home with your nuked Lean Cuisines and nothing but a bunch of hacked-out undergraduate papers to grade by night. You're too full of life to shut yourself down like this. You've got to start getting out. It's been eighteen months since Jared's death."

Andee swallowed past the sudden knot in her throat. "I know how long it's been and I'm fine. I'm not hiding away. I'm just going about my business the same way I always have."

Judy sighed and shook her head so hard her unruly brown curls bounced around her face. "You're wallowing, hon. There's a difference."

"I'm not wallowing. Life goes on. I have obligations to the university and to my students. And even though I can still feel people's eyes on me after all this time, and I'm perfectly aware of what they're saying about me, I can't toss aside my responsibilities any more than you can ignore Dean Parmenter when he asks you to jump."

A spark of frustration flared to life in Judy's obsidian eyes. "We've been over this a hundred times. I know those first few months were hard for you with all the questions and speculation, but it's old news now, Andee. So quit using that dried up excuse to push people away."

Andee began walking again. They were nearly to her office where she could shut and lock the door and nurse her reopened wounds privately without having to face the truths her well-meaning friend seemed determined to pound into her.

"Then explain to me why I used to have friends on campus, people I knew long before I married Jared, and now the only person who even tries to give me the time of day is you. You, Jude. One solitary person. People don't know how to act around me. I'm like some kind of morbid celebrity--they can talk about me from afar, but it's awkward for them to carry on a direct conversation with me. And who can blame them?"

She stopped in front of her office door, dug her keys out of her tote, but couldn't quite manage to get them into the lock because her hands were shaking so hard. "Damn it!" she muttered under her breath.

Judy laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Have you forgotten that I've known you for seven years? I remember you before Jared ever came into your life. And I hate to tell you, hon, but you suck as a martyr."

Andee leaned her forehead against the cool oak door, and closed her eyes. Yeah, maybe she did. But every time she'd start to think she had all the emotional muck under control, there it was it again, popping up to grind her face into the dung hill some more.

"Sweetie, when Jared died with Kate, it was awkward for everyone on campus. The anthropology department lost two professors in one fell swoop, and one of the most respected profs in the history department lost her husband. No one saw any of it coming, and they certainly didn't have any inkling Jared and Kate had been seeing each other for so long."

Andee shook her head and sighed, but Judy continued. "Yes, your real friends should have tried harder to comfort you, but you shut us all out. I'm ashamed of the people who didn't keep trying, but it's hard to keep slamming yourself against a brick wall ... and that's what you were when it came to accepting support. What you continue to be, even after a year and a half, as if you have somehow done something wrong and aren't worthy of having friends. But none of it was your fault. Jared made his own choices. You were an innocent."

A dry laugh escaped Andee's aching throat. "Innocent," she whispered. "That's a pretty pitiable thing for a thirty-four-year-old woman to be, don't you think? I shouldn't have been innocent. I should've known, should've suspected something." Then she squeezed her eyes closed. "Jesus, Judy, listen to me! I can barely stand to be around me sometimes. No wonder no one else wants to."

"I'm not giving up on you, my darling friend, so you just keep trying to push me away all you want, but I'm not going anywhere. My grandmother always says it's the Italian genes and too much garlic in the food. Makes the women in my family mean and unrelenting. Just ask my father."

A grudging smile curved Andee's lips. Judy's mother and grandmother were scary in an old-word, Macbeth-witches kind of way.

"Yeah, you get the picture, don't you?" Judy grinned. "So save your disdain for those stuffed shirts at your next history department meeting. Professor Balmendash, for example, needs someone to whip his withered ass into shape. How old is that guy anyway? He's got to be at least a hundred. And he's crotchety as hell. I don't know how the students stand him." Judy shuddered.

"They don't," Andee said matter-of-factly, regaining a bit of emotional balance at Judy's inane chit-chat. She lowered her voice since Balmy's office was just two doors down from hers. "They usually sleep through his classes. He's so near-sighted he never notices."

Judy sniggered. "And they pay the man good money." She grabbed Andee's keys from her, jabbed the one neatly labeled "Office" into the lock, turned it, and pushed open the door. When she handed the key ring back, Andee found the blue tickets in her palm also.


"No arguments, hon. Those fascinating papers on Ancient Middle Earth can wait one more night. Go. Have fun. Lighten up."

Andee shook her head as she stared at the tickets. "My course this semester is High Middle Ages, not Ancient Middle Earth--you're confusing Tolkien with real life."

"And neither one of them have anything to do with the Phantom of the Opera, which is the issue at hand. I've heard they have a huge hit on their hands this fall--supposed to be an excellent cast, and the guy playing the Phantom is, apparently, phenomenal."

"I don't know..."

"I do. Curtain rises at seven-thirty. I expect a full report tomorrow." She gave Andee a quick hug. "Gotta go. The meeting with the elitist pricks starts at five and, God knows, I don't dare be late." With a wave and a grin, she was gone.

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