Today's Reading

Theia smiled. "Antonia. Lovely name. Do you know, there is an Antonia, a young girl, in a new opera by Monsieur Jacques Offenbach, Les Contes d'Hoffmann—The Tales of Hoffmann. Mr. Drake and I were fortunate to see it at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Now, extend your arm and hand, so."

Antonia copied Theia's raised arm and pointing finger. Theia unclasped her bracelet, which glinted as if made of rust-red wire, and wrapped it around Antonia's wrist. She refastened the intricate gold clasp before encouraging the little bird onto the girl's finger. After some flapping about, Aria regained his equilibrium. "There!" exclaimed Theia. "Now, all you must do is stay just like that, as still as can be, until I am done."

A delighted smile spread across Antonia's face as Aria began preening. Other than the curving of her lips, the girl remained motionless.

Theia turned to Inez. "Begin when ready."

Inez lowered herself onto the bench, her stomach clenched as tightly as at her first recital in her parents' New York City salon more than two decades ago. She took as deep a breath as her corseted lungs would allow, let it out slowly, and positioned her hands on the keyboard. Then she looked up into Theia's expectant face, nodded once, and moved into the first chord.

The introductory notes opened the door to Mrs. Drake's soaring soprano. Inez eased her touch, allowing the singer's voice to take precedence. Like the movement of the tide, piano and vocals flowed back and forth, passing from one to the other in a circling dance of sound. As the last notes faded away, Inez heard Antonia exhale a breathy "Wow."

Inez pushed back the bench and rose, lightheaded. Applause erupted from the nearby wing and she saw Thackery and Mrs. Drake's accompanist. A soft swish of cloth against wood and Mrs. Drake pirouetted to face them, hands pressed prayerfully to her breast, and offered a modest bow. She turned and gestured to Inez to come stand beside her. As Inez approached, she realized she stood nearly eye to eye with the singer—an unusual sensation since she was accustomed to towering over women and even many men.

"Bravissima, Madame Drake," said the pianist. "Extraordinary, as usual."

"Thank you, Señor Rubio," she replied, the melody from music carrying over to her speaking voice. She then turned to Inez and grasped her hands. The color of the diva's pale-brown, almost amber-colored eyes, tinged with gold, reminded Inez of weak tea. "However, the applause belongs to Mrs. Stannert."

Those eyes—anything but weak in character—bore into her in a way Inez found uncomfortably intimate.

Mrs. Drake gave her hands a squeeze. Inez gasped a little, surprised at the strength in the grip, and gently extracted herself. "Thank you, Mrs. Drake."

One gloved hand flew to her lips. "Forgive me. A pianist's hands are like a singer's voice and must be treated with great care and reverence, yes?"

Thackery and Rubio approached, with Thackery saying, "Mrs. Drake, I didn't mention, we rented the Broadwood from Mrs. Stannert's store, the D & S House of Music and Curiosities. Over on Pine and Kearney."

Theia seemed to brighten even more, if that were possible. "Then, I owe you a debt of gratitude, Mrs. Stannert, for I could not sing without a proper instrument to accompany me."

"I am glad we could help," said Inez.

"The D is for Donato," interjected Rubio. "A most distinguished violinist in the city. It is his store, as I recall." He offered a short bow to Inez, adding, "Please tell him, Señor Luis Rubio offers his salutations and will come by the store and provide them in person, when time permits."

Inez caught her breath at this and said quickly, "Mr. Donato is no longer part of the business. His sister, Miss Donato, has taken his place."

"Is that so." Mrs. Drake's response was indifferent, as if the change in conversation were a speck of lint to be brushed from her sparkling skirt.

It was definitely so.

In counterpoint to the diva's disinterest, Rubio's dark-eyed gaze narrowed. Inez fancied she saw his nose twitch. In that moment, he reminded her uncomfortably of one of those sleek, dangerous panthers she'd seen in majestic paintings of California's mountain wildernesses.

She decided it was best to change the subject. "Mrs. Drake, I must give credit where credit is due. The prompt and timely delivery of the Broadwood is all due to the diligence of my store manager, Mr. Thomas Welles. Mr. Welles is also a pianist of considerable talent."

"Welles," muttered Rubio under his breath. Inez thought she detected a disdainful sniff.

"He certainly can be no more talented than you, Mrs. Stannert," said Mrs. Drake. "Please call me Theia, and I shall call you Inez. I believe we shall come to know each other better in the coming days." Theia seized Inez's hands again, but gently. "You see, Inez, I have decided. I am scheduled for a number of very important appearances, and you will be my accompanist. You will be compensated accordingly."

Startled by the request—which had the tenor of a command—Inez tore her attention away from the diva as she debated how to respond.

Her gaze landed on Rubio. He stood behind Theia, a murderous look on his face.

A shiver chilled Inez as she registered that his ire was directed not at Theia, but at her.

This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, January 27th, we begin the book The Leonardo Gulag by Kevin Doherty.

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