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She nodded. "Perhaps next time I can include one of your Russian composers."

Muscular shoulders shrugged. "I learned their music at my mother's knee. She especially loved the Firebird." The dark eyes flashed. "She also told me, 'Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.' Ha!"

Maggie smiled again, relieved to be on less painful ground. "I agree. Your mother was a wise woman."

"Da. She taught me to really listen. 'Just to hear is nothing, Lyubov Moya,' she would say. 'Even a duck hears, eh?'"

His deep, rumbling laughter enveloped her.

Belankov swept two flutes of champagne from the silver tray of a passing waiter and offered one to her. "Will you join me in a toast, then?" His smile was broad, crinkling his eyes.

"Thank you." Maggie accepted the crystal, raised it toward him. "To your mother."

"Za tee bya. And to your husband." He raised a peppered brow in admiration as he touched his glass to hers with a small clink. "May tonight be the best night of all, and the worst of the nights to come."

"Good words." Maggie gazed at him thoughtfully over the rim of her glass. "What story brought you and my husband together, Mr. Belankov?"

"Two things we had in common," he said softly. "Art and music. My colleagues and I run a Think Tank in Washington dedicated to improving U.S.-Russian relations."

"Good luck with that," she muttered.

Belankov shook his head mournfully. "I admit, Mr. Putin does not make it easy. But we take the cultural approach, who can argue with that? Shared art exhibits, ballet company and symphony orchestra tours. At the time we met, your husband was interested in a Raoul Dufy I had acquired. Red Orchestra. Exquisite, you would love it. In fact, your husband tried to buy it for you, but I could not bear to part with it."

"That's so Johnny," she said softly.

"Da," said Belankov. "And now, I am in the midst of arranging a tour of the U.S. by the New Russian Symphony Orchestra." He handed her a creamy embossed business card.

Maggie took the card, slipping it into the pocket of her dress. "I've heard of the orchestra, of course, they've taken the music world by storm. Maestro Zharkov has made quite a name for himself."

"Valentin Zharkov is indeed larger than life, an absolutely mad talent. Like you." He wagged thick peppered brows at her. "He's conducting in London for the next week, at the Royal Festival Hall."

"I've played at the Festival Hall," said Maggie. "I'm flying to London on Saturday night. Perhaps I can attend one of Zharkov's concerts."

"It's an all-Russian program, Madame O'Shea." Belankov smiled, leaned closer. "Is there any way I could convince you to solo with Maestro Zharkov and his orchestra one night when they come to the states? Please. How could you say no to your husband's beloved Rachmaninoff?"

* * *

"Call me Yuri, please."

In the Boston Museum's soaring atrium, Yuri Belankov gazed at the lovely pianist standing spine-straight in front of him. Up close, she was slight and slender, with a mass of night-black hair caught up on her head and remarkable eyes the deep green of a St. Petersburg river. Her only jewelry was a delicate necklace, its small gold treble clef glinting in the hollow of her throat.

He turned, gestured toward the beautiful contemporary painting on the wall behind him. "Vasily Kandinsky was born in Moscow, did you know that? His Composition 8 is one of my favorite pieces of art. The richness of the colors, all those flowing geometric forms. Aggressive and still quiet, da? Yet it comes together in total harmony. It looks like music."

"It does," said Maggie slowly, stepping closer to gaze at the swirling shapes. "It's as if the artist translated music into something for the eye."

"And you know art, Madame O'Shea."

She shook her head. "Oh, Lord, no, almost nothing. But I crossed paths with a beautiful Matisse this past fall and it reminded me that visual art, like music, can convey powerful emotions. So I've been coming here to the museum whenever I'm in town to learn more."

He leaned toward her. "And to be inspired, for your music."

"Yes." She glanced toward the grand floating staircase that led to several of the galleries. "I have found inspiration here."

"Your Matisse—was it the Dark Rhapsody?"

Her brows arched in surprise. "Yes, how did you know?"

"I read about it in the Times. A priceless painting looted during World War II, a missing heir...a fascinating story. I have a modest art collection myself."

"Russian artists, no doubt?" she said with a smile.

"Except for the Dufy, of course. Popova, Malyutin, Larionov. A small Chagall. Did you know Chagall was born in Belarus?"

"I had no idea."

He bent toward her. "Is it too much to hope that you would tell me the story of Matisse's Dark Rhapsody?"

She glanced at the tall darkening windows. "Perhaps another time. It's been a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Belankov. But it's getting late, and I have one more stop to make before going home, so I will have to say goodnight."

"Of course, I understand. The pleasure has been mine. I hope our paths will cross again, Zvezda Moya."

She gave a faint, questioning smile as she turned away.


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday, September 20th, we begin the book The Mother Next Door by Tara Laskowski.
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