CURTAIN CALL

Chapter 1

Manhattan, New York

August 22, 1868

Emily Forbes let the cadenza spill uninhibited from her lips. Caught up in the beauty of the aria, she let her folded hands break apart from one another, finding expression in motion. While wrapped up in the music, she felt free and…whole. In her imagination, she became the waif raised from ashes and cinders to marry a prince. As she sang the final aria of La Cenerentola in Italian, the words translated in her head and touched her heart.

No more sighing by the fire

to be singing alone, no!

Ah, it was a streak of lightning, a dream, a game

My long life of fear.

With a final vocal flourish, she brought the passage to an end. Overcome by emotion, she sank into a deep curtsy. It wasn’t until she tried to push herself upright that she realized what a dire mistake she’d made. Her left foot slid, bringing her closer to the ground and throwing her precariously off balance.

How could she have gotten so carried away? Heat scalded her cheeks as she focused her gaze on a spot on the stage floor. Her mind whirled as she tried to figure a way to save a portion of her dignity, the squeal of wood against wood cutting through the air. Miss Clara had pushed back the piano bench and abandoned the instrument. She was at Emily’s side in a flash, clapping her hands as she went. One arm slid around Emily’s back, and she wrapped the fingers of her other hand around her upper arm. Then the woman leaned her head close so that her mouth was beside Emily’s ear.

“I’ve got you,” she murmured. Without appearing to do so, she practically lifted Emily from the floor.

Once Emily could plant her wooden limb against the floor, she nodded to Miss Clara, shifting her weight away to signal that she didn’t need any more assistance. Miss Clara nodded back, then stepped aside, presenting Emily with a one-handed flourish. Emily pasted on the smile she knew she was expected to wear onstage. All the while, she fought against the humiliation that covered her like a shroud. None of this would work. No one would want her, awkward and deficient as she was. It had been ridiculous to ever hope.

Taking refuge in the familiarity of discipline, she again clasped her hands at waist level and focused on keeping her breath steady. Chin high, she awaited the verdict.

Another pair of hands began clapping, and footsteps clattered on the stage. “That was extraordinary.” Leonard Jerome approached. He extended his hands to Emily, the ends of his bushy walrus mustache shivering with the speed of his movement. “It’s been so long since I’ve heard bel canto, you made my heart ache.” Indeed, his eyes were slightly red around the edges. He clasped Emily’s hands in his and raised them to his lips. “I didn’t even realize how much I missed the style. These modern singers aim for volume, but they forget artistry.”

He released her and turned to Miss Clara. “When I received your telegram, I knew you wouldn’t have contacted me unless you’d come across an exceptional talent.” He linked his arm through hers. “The Academy must put on something to showcase her voice.” Together they strolled off the stage. His voice drifted back to Emily. “I think Rossini.”

Emily couldn’t move from the spot. A bubble of disbelief expanded in her chest until it popped, and joy fizzed through her. She hadn’t ruined things after all. He wanted her.Mr. Jerome stopped and peered over his shoulder at her. “Is everything all right, Miss Forbes?”

She grinned. “Wonderful.” Moving with as much speed and grace as possible, she caught up with him and Miss Clara.

When she reached his side, Mr. Jerome draped an arm over her shoulder. “My dear, you are going to captivate the city with that voice.”

Miss Clara cleared her throat. He glanced at her, then shifted, offering Emily his arm instead. Miss Clara beamed. “Were you thinking La Cenerentola? Or perhaps The Barber of Seville?”

“No, something special. Something different.”

He turned to look at Emily once again, scrutinizing her from head to foot. She shifted her weight uneasily. “There is something fey and sweet about your protégé, don’t you think?”

He put a finger under Emily’s chin and turned her head this way and that. “She needs something that will show off her voice. But it should also show off this youthful beauty.”

Cheeks aflame, Emily pulled back slightly. As flattering as Mr. Jerome was, he made her feel a little like a prize horse on the auction block. Any minute now, she expected him to inspect her teeth.

“Perhaps La donna del lago?” Miss Clara said.Mr. Jerome’s eyes sparked. “That’s it. That’s it.” He grasped Emily’s hands and raised them to his lips once more. “A romantic masterpiece. You will make a delightful Lady of the Lake.”

Miss Clara looked at her over his shoulder and winked. This certainly explained why she’d insisted Emily practice Elena’s role from La donna del lago incessantly for the last two weeks. The sly thing had orchestrated it perfectly. Emily didn’t try to hide her smile. Mr. Jerome escorted them out through the stage door of the Academy of Music. His coachman pulled up, and Mr. Jerome handed Miss Clara inside. Emily, moving with great caution so as not to repeat her earlier faux pas, shifted her weight to her wooden leg, accepted his hand, and stepped up. She managed the maneuver without mishap.

Now she just had to worry about getting out of the carriage without falling on her face. Or, worse, falling on her new patron.He hopped in after them, as limber as a man half his age.

“Will you ladies join me for a bite of lunch at Delmonico’s?”

Emily barely kept a squeak from escaping. Delmonico’s. It was only the most sophisticated, fashionable restaurant in New York—in the whole country, for that matter.

“That sounds lovely,” Miss Clara said. “It’s been years since I’ve tasted their famous potatoes.”

Mr. Jerome’s smile lifted the edges of his thick mustache. “Jenny Lind used to eat there after every performance. In fact, every prima donna I’ve ever known has adored Delmonico’s. So I know you will enjoy it, as well, Miss Forbes.”

Emily’s cheeks tingled. All her hard work over the last six years was paying off. She could not wait to write her brother, Carter, and his wife, Juliet. Her whole life was about to change.

***

Samuel DeKlerk snapped open his pocket watch. The stubborn hands hadn’t budged.His friend Robert Romijn stood beside him, drink in hand. He made a grunt of disapproval, then nudged him in the ribs with his elbow. “Bad form, Sam.”

Sam sighed and tucked the watch out of sight. “I can’t help it. These parties are so dull.”

Robert pursed his lips in thought. “And what would you do if you weren’t here? Hide away in that clinic of yours, I suppose?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. You have no idea how much work is waiting for me.”

“You’ve obviously never seen my desk at the Museum.” Robert raised an eyebrow. “The work will still be there in the morning.”

“That’s what worries me. I think the documentation must breed when I turn my back on it.”

“Gentlemen, that is hardly fit conversation for a soiree.” Ward McAllister approached them. Sam supposed the man’s expression was meant to be both conspiratorial and reprimanding, but the result was that he merely looked spoiled.

Sam managed a weak smile for his mother’s sake. She lived in fear of McAllister and his infernal list—the list, which dictated who in New York was worth knowing. Left to his own devices, Sam would have offered the pompous old snob a few creative suggestions regarding what he could do with his list. He had no use for society’s four hundred. Not anymore.

After listening for what seemed an eternity to meaningless posturing, Sam disengaged himself from McAllister’s clutches as gently as he could. When he was lost in the crowd, he once again reached for his watch. Surely he had served enough time by now that he could politely withdraw without sullying the DeKlerk honor.

No such luck. The hands of the stubborn watch had marked only twelve minutes since the last time he’d checked them. He raised the device to his ear to make sure it still ticked.“I’m surprised at you, Doctor. All these lovely young ladies around, and you listening to sweet nothings from your pocket watch.”

Feeling the slightest bit guilty, Sam focused on Leonard Jerome. Unlike McAllister, the fellow positively brimmed with bonhomie, making it impossible to take offense. Breaking into a smile, Sam extended a hand. “Jerome, good to see you.”

“Likewise, Doctor, likewise. And may I introduce my newest discovery? This is Miss Emily Forbes and her chaperone, Miss Clara Wray.”

For the first time, Sam noticed the young lady standing beside and just a bit behind Jerome. She was slight, with hair the color of winter sunlight, framing eyes of toffee brown. Hers was a changeable face, passing from serene elegance to pixie-like cheer the instant she smiled at him and her dimples appeared. He bowed briefly over her extended hand. “Miss Forbes, it’s a pleasure.”

“Likewise, Doctor…”

“DeKlerk,” Jerome supplied. “The good doctor’s family is one of the oldest in New York. I’m fairly certain his ancestors were the ones carting in the baubles used to buy Manhattan from the Indians.” The fellow prattled on, seemingly oblivious to his guest’s reaction.

Miss Forbes had gone pale, her smile dissolving. She stared at Sam so intently, he glanced down at his jacket to see what he had spilled there, but his lapels and shirt front were as clean as when he’d dressed three hours earlier.

“Is something the matter?” Sam ventured, breaking into Jerome’s soliloquy.

Miss Forbes blinked. “No, not at all. My—it’s just that my brother once worked with a man named Gordon DeKlerk.”

“He’s my father.” Sam was unsure yet if he should continue the conversation or make a run for it. Father had made plenty of enemies in business. The last thing Sam wanted was to be harangued by the sister of one of his disgruntled cronies. “Perhaps he would remember your brother?”

“I doubt it. Their encounter was several years ago now.” She smiled, and her dimples reappeared, shooting an electric spark right through him. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr.—I mean, Dr. DeKlerk. I do hope you enjoy the singing.”

“Singing? Oh! You’re the mezzo-soprano.” Feeling like an idiot, he fumbled his invitation from his pocket. “Mademoiselle Forbes, I am greatly looking forward to hearing you.”

She still smiled, but one corner of her mouth tilted up, as if she knew he hadn’t had the slightest intention of staying to listen but wouldn’t hold this fact against him. And suddenly, the desire to leave faded. It wouldn’t be so terrible to spend an evening away from the clinic. It would do him good to think of something else for a change. That way, when he did attack his work the next day, he could do so with a clear mind and refreshed spirit.

“Speaking of singing, it’s time we allow Miss Forbes the opportunity to dazzle us.” Jerome led her away.

Her chaperone—whose name Sam couldn’t recall—gave him a polite nod as she passed, but he had a feeling she hadn’t missed a single thing about him. He had been fully weighed and measured, and likely found wanting.

While most of the guests jockeyed for seats as part of the never-ending social game, Sam was content to prop himself against the wall between a pillar and a potted plant.

After a mercifully short introduction from Leonard Jerome, the chaperone seated herself at the piano. Jerome held his hand out to Miss Forbes, and she walked to him, arm extended.

They joined hands briefly, then he released her and she turned to face her audience, her cheeks a becoming pink. The music began, and she closed her eyes for a moment. The familiar introduction of Une voce poco fa filled the salon. When Miss Forbes opened her eyes again, it was as if she had transformed into the elated, determined Rosina who had just fallen in love with a man through his serenades.

Sam straightened. The piece was fiendishly difficult, yet she made it sound effortless, like a natural outburst of girlish excitement. The undercurrent of whispered conversation that usually went on during such presentations stopped; all around him, the other guests gave Miss Forbes their undivided attention.

It wasn’t just her voice that captivated the audience. It was her presence, something undefined. Sam stared, trying to put his finger on the source of her magic. Someone tapped his shoulder. He scowled and turned sharply away from Miss Forbes.

Robert stood beside him, grinning. “I call first try,” he whispered.

Sam summoned his society face and put it on. While he found Miss Forbes intriguing, admitting such would only ensure that Robert would pursue the young woman with extra vigor. “No need to report to me.”

His friend smirked. “None at all. But I’ve noticed that you haven’t pulled your watch out for at least ten minutes.”

“That’s because something finally happened worth paying attention to. She is good.”

“Very good.” Robert nodded. “I imagine we will not be alone in our pursuit. Old Jerome is looking as wolfish as I’ve ever seen him.”

Sam shook his head. “Don’t underestimate that chaperone of hers. She appears to take her job seriously.”

“Hm. That could be a problem.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of a way around it,” Sam whispered in a clipped tone, hoping Robert would take the hint and be quiet.

Miss Forbes came to the end of the aria, and the room erupted with applause. She smiled brilliantly, but instead of dropping into the customary curtsy, she bowed. It wasn’t much of a bow—more an inclination of her head, a swaying of her torso—but it was unexpected. Sam liked it. She wasn’t fluttery with false humility, nor even surprised at the response. She was herself.

She would be worth seeing more of. Even though Sam wasn’t accustomed to such fanciful thoughts, he had already decided Robert would not have a clear playing field. Miss Forbes was something special.

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Taken from Curtain Call by Jennifer AlLee and Lisa Karon Richardson. Copyright © 2014 by Jennifer AlLee and Lisa Karon Richardson. Use by permission of Whitaker House. www.whitakerhouse.com.

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