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She’s going to cancel the debut.

“And you clearly don’t love her the way I do, if you’re so ready and willing to throw her to the wolves!”

Alice is going to cancel the debut.

The one she’d given up real school for.

The one she’d given up Pierce for.

The one she’d practiced six hours every day for.

Etta threw the office door open, startling Rose and Alice enough to interrupt the furious staring contest they’d been having across her mother’s desk.

“Etta—” her mom began, standing quickly. “Shouldn’t you be downstairs?”

“I don’t know,” Etta said, her voice thin with anger as she stared at Alice. “Should I be downstairs, or should I just go home? Is this too much for me to handle, too?”

Her stomach churned as Alice raised a hand toward her, trying to beckon her into the office, into the soothing trap of her arms. Like Etta was a child all over again, and needed to calm down.

There was something sharp, assessing, in Alice’s eyes that instantly brought about a tremor of panic in her. She knew that look. Etta knew exactly what she was thinking.

“I think, duck, we should go home.” She turned and met Rose’s even gaze. “We can finish our discussion there together.”

Etta felt her heart give a kick, then another, until she felt her pulse rioting in her ears, and the temperature of her blood start to rise.

“I’ve given up everything for this…everything. And you want me to just walk away? You want me to cancel, to delay again?” she demanded, trying to keep the pain lancing through her from twisting the words into a whisper. “You don’t think I’m good enough, do you?”

“No, duck, no—”

“Don’t call me that!” Etta said, backing out of the office. “Do you realize I don’t even have a friend left? You told me I needed to focus if I wanted my debut. I gave it all up! I don’t have anything else!”

Concern broke through even her mother’s anger as she shared a glance with Alice. “Darling, that’s not true—”

Alice reached for her again, but Etta wasn’t having any of it—she didn’t even want to look at her, let alone be reasoned with.

“Etta—Henrietta,” Alice tried, but Etta was past the point of listening, of caring what either of them had to say.

“I’m playing,” she told her instructor, “tonight, and at the debut. I don’t care what you think, or if you believe in me—I believe in myself, and there is literally nothing in this world that can keep me from playing.”

Alice called after her, but Etta turned on her heel and stormed back down the hall, keeping her head up and her shoulders back. Later, she could think of all the ways she might have hurt the woman who had practically raised her, but right now all Etta wanted was to feel the stage lights warm her skin. Free the fire fluttering inside her rib cage. Work her muscles, the bow, the violin, until she played herself to ash and embers and left the rest of the world behind to smolder.

THERE WAS ALWAYS A MOMENT, JUST BEFORE SHE PUT HER BOW to the strings, when everything seemed to crystallize. She used to live for it, that second where her focus clicked into place, and the world and everyone in it fell away. The weight of the violin cradled against her shoulder. The warmth of the lights running along the lip of the stage, blinding her to everyone beyond it.

This was not one of those moments.

A flustered, panicked Gail had met her in the hall, and dragged her backstage as guests began to file into the auditorium.

“I thought you said I’d have time to rehearse!” Etta whispered, nearly stumbling as they took the stairs.

“Yes, twenty minutes ago,” Gail said through gritted teeth. “Are you all right to just go out there? You can warm up in the green room.”

Panic curled low in her belly at the thought, but Etta nodded. She was going to be a professional. She needed to be able to take any hiccup or change in plans in stride. What did it matter that she’d never played on this stage? She’d played the Largo hundreds of times. She didn’t need Alice standing by, waiting to give her feedback. She would give Alice proof that she could handle this. “That’s fine.”

Michelle, the curator in charge of the Antonius, met them in the green room. Etta actually caught herself holding her breath as the Antonius was lifted out of its case and placed gently into her hands. With the care she’d use to handle a newborn chick, Etta curled her fingers around its long, graceful neck and gladly accepted its weight and responsibility.

Ignoring the eyes of Sophia, the dark-haired girl watching her from the corner, Etta set the bow to the violin’s strings, crossing them. The sound that jumped out was as warm and golden as the tone of the instrument’s wood. Etta let out a faint laugh, her anxiety buried under the fizz of excitement. Her violin was a beauty, but this was an absolute prince. She felt like she was about to melt at the quality of each note she coaxed out of it.

She’s not ready for this. She doesn’t have the right training, and there’s no guarantee it’ll go the right way for her.…

Etta closed her eyes, setting her jaw against the burn of tears rising in her throat, behind her lashes. What right had Etta had to yell at Alice like that? How could she think her opinion was somehow more accurate than Alice’s, when the woman was lauded the whole world over, when she’d trained dozens of professional violinists?