“Oh, it matters,” Iris muttered.
Honoria jabbed her cousin lightly with her violin bow. “Family and tradition,” she reminded her. “That is what matters.” Family and tradition. Anne wouldn’t have minded some of those. Although, realy, it hadn’t gone so well for her the first time around.
“Can you see anything?” Daisy asked. She was hopping from foot to foot like a frenetic magpie, and Anne had already backed up twice, just to preserve her toes.
Honoria, who was closer to the spot from which they would make their entrance, nodded. “There are a few empty seats, but not many.” Iris groaned.
“Is it like this every year?” Anne could not quite refrain from asking.
“Like what?” Honoria replied.
“Wel, er . . .” There were some things one simply did not say to the nieces of one’s employer. One did not, for example, make any sort of explicit comment about the lack of another young lady’s musical skils. Or wonder aloud if the concerts were always this dreadful or if this year was particularly bad. And one definitely did not ask, If the concerts are always so horrific, why do people keep coming?
Just then fifteen-year-old Harriet Pleinsworth came skidding in through a side door. “Miss Wynter!” Anne turned, but before she could say anything, Harriet announced, “I am here to turn your pages.”
“Thank you, Harriet. That will be most helpful.”
Harriet grinned at Daisy, who gave her a disdainful stare.
Anne turned away so no one would see her roll her eyes. Those two had never gotten along. Daisy took herself too seriously, and Harriet took nothing seriously.
“It’s time!” Honoria announced.
Onto the stage they went, and after a brief introduction, they began to play.
Anne, on the other hand, began to pray.
Dear God, she had never worked so hard in her life. Her fingers raced across the keys, trying desperately to keep up with Daisy, who played the violin as if in a footrace.
This is ridiculous ridiculous ridiculous, Anne singsonged in her mind. It was the strangest thing, but the only way to get through it was to keep talking to herself.
It was an impossibly difficult piece of music, even for accomplished players.
Ridiculous ridiculous— Ack! C-sharp! Anne flung out her right pinkie finger and hit the key just in time. Which was to say, two seconds later than it should have been.
She stole a quick glance at the audience. A woman in the front row looked il.
Back to work back to work. Oh dear, wrong note. Never mind. No one would notice, not even Daisy.
And on she played, half wondering if she should just make up her part. It couldn’t possibly make the music any worse. Daisy was flying through her section, her volume modulating between loud and extremely loud; Honoria was plodding on, each note like a determined footfal; and Iris—
Wel, Iris was actualy good. Not that it mattered.
Anne took a breath, stretching her fingers during a brief pause in the piano part. Then it was back to the keys and—
Turn the page, Harriet.
Turn the page, Harriet.
“Turn the page, Harriet!” she hissed.
Harriet turned the page.
Anne struck the first chord, then realized that Iris and Honoria were already two bars ahead. Daisy was—wel, good gracious, she had no idea where Daisy was.
Anne skipped ahead to where she hoped the rest of them were. If nothing else, she’d be somewhere in the middle.
“You missed some of it,” Harriet whispered.
And realy, it didn’t.
And then finaly, oh finally, they reached a section where Anne didn’t have to play for three entire pages. She sat back, let out the breath she’d been holding for, oh, it felt like ten minutes, and . . .
She froze. Someone was watching them from the back room. The door through which they had entered the stage—the one which Anne was certain she’d shut with a click—was now ever so slightly ajar. And because she was the closest to the door, not to mention the only musician who didn’t have her back to it, she could see a sliver of a man’s face peering through.
It burst through her, compressing her lungs, firing her skin. She knew this feeling. It didn’t come often, thank God, but often enough. Every time she saw someone where someone shouldn’t be . . .
She made herself breathe. She was in the home of the dowager Countess of Winstead. She was as safe as safe could be. What she needed to do was—
“Miss Wynter!” hissed Harriet.
Anne jumped to attention.
“You missed your entrance.”
“Where are we now?” Anne asked franticaly.
“I don’t know. I can’t read music.”
Despite herself, Anne looked up. “But you play the violin.”
“I know,” Harriet said miserably.
Anne scanned the notes on the page as fast as she could, her eyes jumping quickly from bar to bar.
“Daisy’s glaring at us,” Harriet whispered.
“Shhh.” Anne needed to concentrate. She flipped the page, took her best guess, and brought her fingers down into G minor.
And then slid over to major. That was better.
Better being a most relative term.
For the rest of the performance she kept her head down. She didn’t look up, not at the audience, not at the man watching her from the back room. She banged through the notes with as much finesse as the rest of the Smythe-Smiths, and when they were done, she stood and curtsied with her head still bowed, murmured something to Harriet about needing to tend to herself, and fled.
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