Duet for Three Hands
“I stayed up the entire night reading Duet for Three Hands…[it] was the epitome of unputdownable.” —The Bookish Owl
A standalone historical romance from USA Today bestselling author Tess Thompson that teaches a valuable lesson about life's most important choice: embracing the power of love or being consumed by the power of hate.
Nathaniel Fye's marriage into the wealthy Bellmont family is one of convenience, and the brilliant concert pianist soon discovers he has no idea who his wife really is. Then tragedy leaves Nathaniel with nothing more than memories of his fame and fortune, and a single protege—the widow Lydia Tyler—to continue teaching.
Jeselle Thorton's heart has always belonged to one man, who, fortunately for Jeselle, has always reciprocated her love. But because of the color of their skin, the couple can never have more than their dreams of a future together.
Four lives brought together by circumstance will be forced to combat prejudice and risk everything in this deep and complex family saga of forbidden love and flawed humanity in America's Depression-era South.
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Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly forty published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on Hometowns and Heartstrings.
From Jeselle Thorton’s journal.
June 10, 1928
When I came into the kitchen this morning, Mrs. Bellmont handed me a package wrapped in shiny gold paper, a gift for my thirteenth birthday. A book, I thought, happy. But it wasn’t a book to read. It was a book to write in: a leather-bound journal. Inches of blank pages, waiting for my words.
Mrs. Bellmont beamed at me, seemingly pleased with my delight over the journal. “You write whatever ideas and observations come to you, Jeselle. Don’t censor yourself. Women, especially, can only learn to write by telling the truth about themselves and those around them.”
I put my nose in the middle of all those empty pages and took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the clean smell of new paper. Behind us Mama poured hotcake batter into a frying pan. The room filled with the aroma of those sweet cakes and sizzling oil. Whitmore came in holding a string of fish he’d caught in the lake, the screen door slamming behind him.
“Tell me why it matters that you write?” asked Mrs. Bellmont in her soft teacher voice.
“I cannot say exactly, Mrs. Bellmont.” Too shy to say the words out loud, I shrugged to hide my feelings. But I know exactly. I write to know I exist, to know there is more to me than flesh and muscle being primed for a life of humility, servitude, obedience. I write, seeking clarity. I write because I love. I write, searching for the light.
Mrs. Bellmont understood. This is the way between us. She squeezed my hand, her skin cream over my coffee.
Tonight, for my birthday present, Whit captured lightning bugs in a glass jar, knowing how I love them. We set the jar on the veranda, astonished at the immensity of their combined glow. “Enough light in there to write by,” I said, thinking of my journal now tucked in my apron pocket.
“They spark to attract a mate,” he said, almost mournfully.
“They light up to find love?” I asked, astonished.
He nodded. “Isn’t it something?”
We watched those bugs for a good while until Whit pushed his blond curls back from his forehead like he does when he worries.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“They shouldn’t be trapped in this jar when they’re meant to fly free, to look for love.”
He unscrewed the lid, and those flickers of life drifted out into the sultry air until they intermingled with other fireflies, liberated to attract the love they so desperately sought. I moved closer to him. He took my hand as we watched and watched, not wanting the moment to end but knowing it must, as all moments do, both good and bad, light and dark, leaving only love behind to be savored in our memories.
Chapter 1: Nathaniel
On a hot and humid day in the middle of June, Nathaniel Fye rehearsed for a concert he was to give that night at the Howard Theatre with the Atlanta Orchestra. It was late afternoon when he emerged from the cool darkness of the theatre into the glaring afternoon heat and noise of Peachtree Street. He walked toward the large W that hung over the Hotel Winecoff, where he planned to eat a late afternoon meal and then head up to his room for a rest and a bath before dressing for the evening concert. Thick, humid air and gasoline fumes from passing automobiles made him hot even in his white linen summer suit. Across to Singapore, starring Joan Crawford, was displayed on the Loew’s Theatre marquee. What sort of people went to the moving pictures, he wondered? Ordinary people who had lives filled with fun and love and friendship instead of traveling from town to town for concerts and nothing but practice in between. All the travel had been tolerable, even exciting, when he was younger, but now, as his age crept into the early thirties, he found himself wanting companionship and love, especially from a woman. Lately, he daydreamed frequently of a wife and children, a home. The idea filled him with longing, the kind that even the accolades and enthusiastic audiences could not assuage. But he was hopeless with women. Tongue-tied, stammering, sweating, all described his interactions with any woman but his mother. His manager, Walt, was good with people. He could talk to anyone. But Nathaniel? He could never think of one thing to say to anyone—his preferred way of communication was music. When his hands were on the keys it was as if his soul were set free to love and be loved, everything inside him released to the world. He would never think of taking the astonishing opportunities his talent had afforded him for granted, especially after the sacrifices his parents had made for him to study with the finest teachers in the world. Even so, he was lonely. The disciplined life and his natural reticence afforded little opportunity for connection.
A young woman stood near the entrance of the Winecoff, one foot perched saucily on the wall while balancing on the other, reading a magazine. She wore a cream-colored dress, and her curly, white-blonde hair bobbed under a cloche hat of fine-woven pink straw with a brim just wide enough to cover her face. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the door’s glass window, suddenly conscious of his own appearance. Tall, with a slight slump at his shoulders from years at the piano, dark hair under his hat, high cheekbones and sensitive brown eyes from his father but a delicate nose and stern mouth from his mother. Handsome? He suspected not. Just because you wish something didn’t make it so, he thought. As his hand touched the door to go in, the young woman looked up and stared into his eyes. “Good afternoon. How do you do?”
Porcelain skin, gray eyes, perfect petite features, all combined to make a beautiful, exquisite, but completely foreign creature. A beautiful woman. Right here, in front of him. What to do? His heart flipped inside his chest and started beating hard and fast. Could she tell? Was it visible? He covered his chest with his hand, hot and embarrassed. “Yes.” He lifted his hat. Oh, horrors: his forehead was slick with sweat. Yes? Had he just said yes? What had she asked him? He moved his gaze to a spot on the window. A fly landed on the glass and went still, looking at him with bulging eyes.
Her voice, like a string attached to his ear, drew his gaze back to her. “It’s unbearably hot. I could sure use a Coca-Cola.” With a flirtatious cock of her head, she smiled. She had the same thick Georgian accent as all the women in Atlanta, but there was a reckless, breathless quality in the way she oozed the words.
“Quite. Yes. Well, goodbye, then.” He somehow managed to open the door and slip inside.
The hotel was quiet. Several women lounged in the lobby, talking quietly over glasses of sweet tea. A man in a suit sat at one of the small desks provided for guests, writing into a ledger. A maid scurried through with an armful of towels. He wanted nothing more than to be swallowed by the wall. What was the matter with him? How was it possible to hold the attention of hundreds during a concert, yet be unable to utter a single intelligible thing to one lone woman?
He stumbled over to the café counter and ordered a sandwich and a glass of Coca-Cola. He allowed himself one glass whenever he performed in Atlanta during the summer. The heat, as the young woman had said, made a person long for a Coca-Cola. But only one, no more or he might never stop, and next thing he knew he’d have one every day and then twice a day and so forth. Sweet drinks were an indulgence, a dangerous way to live for a man who must have complete discipline to remain a virtuoso. If he allowed himself anything or everything he wanted, where might it lead? He could not be like other people, even if he wanted to be.
Waiting for his drink, he heard, rather than saw, the door open, and then the blonde woman sat beside him, swinging her legs ever so slightly as she perched on the round bar stool. “Hello again.” She placed her hands, which were half the size of his and so white as to appear almost translucent, upon the counter. She interlaced her fingers, rather primly and in a way that seemed to belie the general forwardness of sitting next to a man she didn’t know at an otherwise empty counter. He nodded at her, catching a whiff of gardenia he supposed came from her smooth, white neck.
“Would you like to buy me a Coca-Cola?” She peered up at him from under her lashes. Her eyes were the color of storm clouds.
What was this? She wanted him to buy her a drink? Had she hinted at that outside? What a ninny he was. Of course. Any imbecile could have picked up on that. Walt would have had her in here with a soda in her hand before the door closed behind them. He tried to respond, but his voice caught in the back of his throat. Instead he nodded to the man in the white apron behind the fountain, who, in turn, also in silence, pulled the knob of the fountain spray with a beefy arm.
“I’ve just come from the Crawford picture. It was simply too marvelous for words. I do so love the moving pictures. What’s your name?” She pressed a handkerchief to the nape of her neck where soft curls lay, damp with perspiration. What would it feel like to wrap his finger in one of the curls?
“I’m Frances Bellmont. You from up north?”
“Maine originally. I live in New York City now.”
Her gray eyes flickered, and an eyebrow rose ever so slightly. “I see. A Yankee.” He thought he detected an excitement as she said it, as if to sit by him were an act of rebellion.
“As north as you can get and still be an American,” he said. At last. Words!
“’Round here we’re not sure any of y’all are true Americans.” She took a dainty sip from her soda and peered at him out of the corner of her eyes. “Now wait a minute. Are you Nathaniel Fye, the piano player?”
“Oh my.” She turned her full gaze upon him. “That is interesting.” She had full lips that looked almost swollen. “My mother and I happen to be attending that very concert tonight. I don’t enjoy such serious music, but my mother simply adores it. We’re staying overnight here at the Winecoff. We live all the way across town, and mother thought it would be nice to stay overnight. Together.” She rolled her eyes.
Before he knew what he was saying, a lie stumbled from his mouth. “Party. Later. In my suite. You could come. Your mother, too.”
“A party? I’d love to attend. Do I have to bring my mother?” She sipped her soda while looking up at him through her lashes.
“I, I don’t know.” He stuttered. “Isn’t that how it’s done?”
She slid off her seat, touching the sleeve of his jacket like a caress. “I’m just teasing. We wouldn’t think of missing it. I’ll see you then.” And then she was out the door, leaving only the smell of her perfume behind, as if it had taken up permanent residence in his nostrils.
Later that night, before the concert, he stood at the full-length mirror in the greenroom of the Howard Theatre, brushing lint from his black tuxedo jacket. Walt sat across from him in one of the soft chairs, scouring the arts section of the New York Times and occasionally making notations in a small notebook.
“I’d like to have a small group up to my room. After the concert tonight.”
“What did you say?” Walt, a few years younger than Nathaniel, possessed light blue eyes that were constantly on the move, shifting and scanning, like a predator looking for his next meal. He was once an amateur violinist who had played in his small town of Montevallo, Alabama, at church and town dances before he went to New York City. “Played the fiddle, but I didn’t have the talent to go all the way,” he told Nathaniel years ago, during their first interview. “But the music, it gets in a person’s blood, and I aim to make a life out of it however I can.”
Walt closed the newspaper without making a sound, like he was trying not to spook a wild horse. He stood, folding the newspaper under his arm. He had a slim build and wore wire-rimmed glasses. Receding light brown hair made his forehead appear more prominent than it once was. Despite his ordinary appearance, women flushed and giggled when he spoke to them. “Never, in five years, have you had folks up to your room. Much as I’ve asked you to.”
“I know,” Nathaniel said, shrugging as if it were nothing important. “You know I can never think of anything to say to people.”
Walt’s eyes were already at the door. “You want me to bring the music promoter I was telling you about? He’s keen to get after you with some ideas.”
Walt rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’ll make sure no one stays too late. We leave for the West tomorrow on the early train.” He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. “Why the sudden interest in sociability?” He raised an eyebrow and punched him on the shoulder. “Could it be the young lady I saw you with earlier?”
Nathaniel straightened his bow tie. “How did you know that?”
“I was checking into the hotel when I happened to see the two of you at the bar. I saw her again at the restaurant tonight. Dining with her mother, if I make my guess. They’re almost identical.”
Nathaniel wanted to ask more but kept quiet. He took his pocket watch out of his trousers and set it on the table. His pockets must be empty when he played. He stretched his fingers.
“You do know who they are, don’t you?” Walt’s forehead glistened. He took off his glasses and waved them in the air. Nathaniel couldn’t decide if he only imagined the movement was in the shape of a dollar sign.
“Last name’s Bellmont.”
“Yeah, that’s Frances Bellmont you bought a soda for, my friend. The Bellmont family’s old money. Used to own half of Georgia. He’s a vice president over at Coca-Cola.”
Walt waggled his fingers, teasing. “I know you don’t care about such things.”
“Just be at my room at ten,” Nathaniel said, chuckling. “Before anyone else arrives. I’ll need you to do the talking.”
“My mama always said I was a good talker,” said Walt.
“One of us has to be.”
“I’ll get hold of some champagne. From what I hear, Frances Bellmont likes her champagne.” He slapped Nathaniel on the back.
“What do you mean?” A dart of something, almost like fear, pierced the bottom of his stomach.
“Just rumors. Nothing to worry over.”
“She likes parties. That’s all.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s my job to know these kinds of things.” Walt put up his hand, like a command. “Stop. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you interested in a woman. Don’t ruin it by talking yourself out of it.” He left through the greenroom door, calling out behind him, “Good luck tonight.”
After the concert, Nathaniel went back to his suite and bathed the perspiration from his body, using a scrub brush and soap he imagined smelled like a woman’s inner wrist. He washed his thick, dark hair and flicked it back with pomade so that the waves that sometimes fell over his forehead were tamed. Using a straight blade to shave his face, he scrutinized his looks. Would he ever be appealing to a girl like Frances Bellmont? His eyes were brown and on the small side, if he were truthful. And his lips were thin, now that he really looked at them, although he had straight, white teeth. That was something. People were always telling Walt that Nathaniel came across as intense, and sometimes even the word frightening had been used. I’ll smile, he assured himself. Easy and fun, like Walt.
He hung his tuxedo in the closet and smoothed the bed cover from where he’d rumpled it during his earlier nap. Then he straightened the sitting room, disposing of a newspaper and moving several music sheets marked with his latest composition to the other room. Would people sit, he wondered? Or stand? He looked about the room. He hadn’t noticed much about it upon his arrival. All hotels began to look the same after a while. A crystal chandelier hung in the middle of the room, cascading like fallen tears and casting subdued light across a dark green couch with scalloped legs. A round table stood between two straight-backed chairs with cushions decorated in a complicated red floral design. Would there be enough room for everyone? How many did Walt invite? He should have asked. Despite his recent bath, he began to perspire.
Just then there was a knock on the door. It was Walt, looking newly shaven and dapper in a tan linen suit with a blue tie. With him was a man about Walt’s age, whom he introduced as Ralph Landry. “How do you know Walt?” Nathaniel asked him, feigning interest, trying to keep his gaze from wandering to the door.
“Knew one another growing up in Montevallo, Alabama.” Ralph’s accent sounded like a foreign language to Nathaniel: slow, elongated vowels, twice as many, it seemed, than words usually had, and no “r” sounds. “Moved out to New York together for college, and I went on to med school. Now I’m headed back to Montevallo to start my own practice.” Ralph’s face, pink and fleshy, looked like the underbelly of a sow, and he had a particularly thick neck that seemed about to pop open his bow tie.
“Best of luck to you.” Nathaniel cleared his throat and glanced over at Walt, who was taking bottles of champagne out of an apple crate. He forced himself to look back to his companion.
“How’s your younger brother doing?” Walt asked.
“Half-brother,” Ralph corrected him. “He calls himself Mick now.” Ralph’s face turned serious. “He’s at loose ends since graduating from high school.”
“Send him out to California,” said Walt. “Didn’t you tell me he lives for moving pictures? He could get a job out there.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Ralph.
“We can thank Ralphie here for the illegal suds,” Walt said, slapping is friend on the back.
Ralph took a big sip. “Well, let’s just say being able to stitch folks up after a gunshot wound in the middle of the night provides some benefits.” He laughed and took another gulp of champagne. “Have to get a little wop blood on my hands sometimes, but it’s worth it.”
Nathaniel felt a blast of revulsion, knowing Ralph meant the New York underworld of organized crime. One of the head crime bosses had asked Nathaniel to play at his daughter’s birthday party several years ago. He booked an overseas tour to get out of it, fearing his hands might be crushed if he refused.
“You want a drink, Nathaniel?” asked Walt.
Nathaniel shook his head, no.
“Don’t drink, Mr. Fye?” asked Ralph.
“I do not,” said Nathaniel, stifling a sigh. This was a mistake. Frances probably wouldn’t even show, and he’d be trapped here all night while these derelicts went through the half-case of champagne.
“Nathaniel here is looking for sainthood after his death,” said Walt. “All he does is work. So you and I’ll have to drink his share.”
Before Walt could answer, there was another knock on the door. It was John Wainwright, the music promoter, and his wife. Walt had told Nathaniel the wife’s name, but he couldn’t remember it. The palms of his hands were damp. His throat tightened. The pulse at his neck was rapid, yet his breathing felt shallow, like he couldn’t get enough air. He caught a glimpse of the bed in the other room and felt a sudden, intense longing for the feel of the cool sheets on his skin.
To his relief, John Wainwright came over to him and held out his hand, introducing himself. Mr. Wainwright had the kind of face no one would remember in the morning and a limp, clammy handshake, like a faded, damp cloth on a clothesline. His wife wore a black evening gown that clung to her wide hips and large breasts. Her copper red hair was cut in an unflattering blunt bob above the ears. She stared at Nathaniel with eyes rimmed in charcoal-colored liner, grasping in her gloved hands the program from tonight’s concert. “Autograph for me?” She blushed, the fat of her upper arms straining against the elastic of her long white gloves.
He did so, avoiding her gaze. My God, the room was stifling. He reached inside his jacket for his handkerchief and wiped the palms of his hands and then mopped his brow.
“I’m just absolutely thrilled to meet you.” Mrs. Wainwright’s highpitched voice reminded Nathaniel of one of those yappy lapdogs he saw with wealthy New York socialites. “Oh, the excitement in the theatre tonight when your hands hovered over the keyboard before those last notes. I thought the woman next to me might faint. How do you do it?” Her eyes bulged as she leaned forward, so close to his face that he caught a whiff of onions on her breath.
“It’s just my job.” His voice sounded like a rusty gate. He tried to smile, feeling as if his lips were caught against his teeth. “Same as anyone.”
Another knock on the door. Walt, setting down his glass of champagne, moved to answer it. Nathaniel held his breath. He wanted it to be her. And he didn’t want it to be her.
Walt opened the door, and there stood Frances Bellmont. She wore a pale blue gown with rows of fringe all the way up the skirt, which reminded him of the spikes of sea anemones. Fair hair curled around her face, and her stormy eyes were made up with black mascara. They sparkled even from across the room and were, for an instant, the only things Nathaniel could see. He tore his eyes away from her. Yes, he thought, that’s what it felt like to turn away, like a ripping away from something life-giving. Her mother was equally lovely, and Walt was correct, they looked remarkably alike, except Mrs. Bellmont was several inches shorter and wore her hair in longer curls.
The room had gone silent, like an enchanted breeze had woven its way among everyone, rendering them speechless. Walt recovered first, taking the Bellmont ladies’ hands in turn and introducing himself. Nathaniel could do nothing but stare at his shoes and wish for a piano where he could play and hide. And then, like walking in a strong wind, he came forward and put his hand out to Mrs. Bellmont. She took it, and he brought her gloved hand up to his lips in the way he’d seen Walt do many times to young ladies after concerts.
“Mr. Fye, I’m pleased to meet you.” Mrs. Bellmont’s eyes were identical to Frances’s, except without any makeup. She was virtually unlined, but her face was thinner than her daughter’s, showing evidence of her age. He imagined, for a brief, insane moment, that he saw his future, but then her lovely resonant voice, like a stringed instrument, brought him back to the present. “The concert was simply lovely. What a privilege to meet you in person.”
“Mr. Fye, good to see you again.” Frances tugged at her gloves as her eyes shifted about the room. “Are more guests expected?”
“I’m not sure. Walt arranged this.” Frances’s gloves were off now, dangling in her left hand like discarded snakeskins. “Oh, I do hope so. It’s wonderful to be out. You must have such a glamorous life in New York City.” She held out her left hand.
He took the offered hand, but instead of kissing it properly as he intended, his shaking hand seemed incapable of bringing it to his mouth; instead of making contact with her soft skin, he kissed the air just above her knuckles, resulting in a smacking from his lips that sounded like a baby suckling. He felt his ears turn red.
Frances smiled at him and removed her hand, which was the texture of a rose petal. Dazzling, that’s the only way he could think to describe her smile. It reached him someplace deep inside, stirring feelings he didn’t know he had. Was it possible that a man like him could get a woman like Frances Bellmont to love him? If only he were less awkward, less confused.
She stuffed her gloves into the small, black purse she carried. “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Do you have a glamorous life in New York City? I imagine you know actresses and singers. Think of that, Mother.” Without waiting for an answer, she continued, her eyes bright, “I suppose there are hundreds of parties?”
“I’m unsure. I travel much of the time. In fact, I leave for the West tomorrow. I’ll be gone eight weeks.”
“The West? Do you mean California?” asked Frances.
“Yes. All the western cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.”
“Hollywood?” Frances clapped her hands together. “How exciting.”
“I suppose.” He wanted to tell her how lonely he was, how comforting it would be to have a wife by his side, but, of course, he could not. Even he knew this was not appropriate cocktail party conversation.
Ralph Landry brought champagne to both the Bellmont ladies and then guided Mrs. Bellmont over to the Wainwrights, leaving Nathaniel alone with Frances. For the second time in less than a minute he wished for a piano, and then he simply wished for music, but there was not a gramophone in the room and no piano at which he might sit and transform into the man featured on posters and programs. Instead, in the glow of the beautiful Frances Bellmont he was merely a large, awkward man in an expensive suit.
He remembered then, as if it were only yesterday, standing at the side of the Grange hall when he was in his late teens, home for a brief visit before he left for New York City to begin another chapter in his tutelage, dressed in a suit made by his mother. For days, while he practiced in the other room, he’d heard the stop and go of the sewing machine, between his scales and notes; his mother unconsciously matched the rhythm of whatever he played—relegated, for her son, to seamstress from her own seat at the piano bench.
That night, at the Grange, a band of the variety Walt had once been part of played as entertainment. There was a fiddler, a banjo player, and a pianist who had no feel for the subtlety of music. The singer was a young woman with a clear, crystal voice; thick, shiny, brown hair arranged in a loose bun at the nape of her neck; and round, blue eyes the color of the sea on a sunny day. She wore a cheap cotton dress, loose like it belonged to an older sister, but Nathaniel could see the roundness of her hips and breasts, could imagine what her thighs might feel like in his hands. And the desire for her rivaled even his ambition, so that for nights afterward he thought of her, staring at the ceiling in his childhood bedroom, which was no bigger than a closet, with walls so thin he imagined he heard the wood rotting in the sea air. He prayed for the thoughts to go away, even while imagining himself as the moderately skilled piano player next to her. He wondered, should this be his small life instead of the large one his mother imagined for him, that he, indeed, had imagined for himself?
But he’d gone away, to live with his mentor, and it would be years before he acted on his base desires with a prostitute in New York. While he thrust into the half-used-up immigrant girl who spoke only the romantic, lyrical Italian of her native country, he closed his eyes and imagined the singer. It was only after he was done that he truly looked at the girl’s face and saw her humanity. She was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. What had he done? Sickened, his lust was immediately replaced by a terrible feeling of regret and shame that lived in his gut for months afterward, like a flu from which he couldn’t recover. But he was a man, and there were others from time to time, all women who traded pleasure for money. It shamed him, each one, and yet he was a slave to his desires. Without a wife, he must turn to these destitute women and then repent on Sundays and ask for forgiveness. How lonely it was, this life that was his destiny. The feeling of desolation lessened only when he played. And so he did. Day after day. Night after night.
Now, at this makeshift party, Frances drank her champagne as if it were water. Think of something to say, he commanded himself. Cigarettes. Offer a cigarette. Women liked that. Did they like that? He had no idea what women liked. “Would you like a cigarette?”
“No thank you. Not in front of Mother. She has this ridiculous notion it’s bad for a woman’s complexion.”
He put them back in his coat pocket without taking one for himself and then stuffed his hands in his pockets. Under his jacket, he drew his stomach to his backbone, cringing inside. He caught Walt’s eyes and silently begged him for rescue. Walt understood, apparently, because he brought Mrs. Bellmont over to where Nathaniel stood with Frances and offered his arm to the younger woman. “Miss Bellmont, come with me. I’ll introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Wainwright. And my old friend, Ralph Landry.”
After they had gone, Mrs. Bellmont smiled up at Nathaniel. “Frances was awfully happy to be invited to a party. We don’t have nearly as an eventful life as she wishes.” Her accent was slightly different from Frances’s, clipped with more distinct “r” sounds.
This was something, he thought. Something to ask. “Are you from Georgia originally?”
“A small town in Mississippi, but I’ve been in Georgia for more than twenty years now.” She paused, glancing over to where Frances was now talking with the Wainwrights. “Frances tells me you’re from Maine. I’ve read it’s beautiful there.”
“I’ve never been anywhere prettier.” A surge of pleasure exploded inside him. Frances had spoken about him to her mother. Perhaps she liked him a little. “If you can stand the winters.”
“How does your father earn his living?”
“Lobster. Worked the cages almost every day of his life, pulling up those crates with his bare hands, often to find only one or two lobsters at a time.”
“He’s passed, then?”
He nodded, feeling the ache in his chest that had taken a year to subside. “Three years ago.”
“He lived to see your success?”
“He must have been quite proud.”
“I believe so. He wasn’t one to talk much. My mother told me he used to listen to my recordings every single day before he died.”
His mother had been his first teacher, but after several years she decided he’d surpassed her ability to teach him and found a teacher of considerable reputation in the next town over. He remembered, vividly, his father taking the boat out on Sunday afternoons, even though it was the Sabbath, to catch additional lobsters to pay for Nathaniel’s lessons. “You can’t imagine what they gave up for me to have this life.”
“I’m sure I can.” She played with the collar of her gown, a lovely light green that reminded him of gowns he’d seen in Paris last year. He thought of his mother’s one decent dress, ironed faithfully every Saturday night to wear to church the next morning, until the fabric thinned at the elbows and frayed at the hem. “My grandmother did the same for me. And we must never forget those sacrifices.” Mrs. Bellmont smiled and took a small sip of champagne.
“Is Frances your only child?”
“No, I have a son. Whitmore.” Her face lit up when she said her son’s name.
From across the room Walt laughed and clinked glasses with Mrs. Wainwright and Frances. Nathaniel must have sighed because Mrs. Bellmont’s kind eyes met his as she touched the sleeve of his jacket. “What’s wrong, Mr. Fye?”
He blinked. “Nothing really.”
“You don’t usually host parties, I imagine?”
“Never.” He turned toward her. “I find it difficult.”
“Meeting new people?”
“You’ve had to live a disciplined life. It doesn’t leave much time for social engagements.” Her voice was sympathetic, understanding. “So why tonight?”
He took his hands out of his pockets. The bubbles in Mrs. Bellmont’s glass floated one by one to the top of her drink.
“I suggested the party for the sole purpose of seeing your daughter. I also wanted to meet you properly so that I might ask if I could call on her when I return from the West. But when she was in front of me, I couldn’t think of one thing to say.”
Mrs. Bellmont was silent for a moment, twisting the stem of her champagne glass with her fingers. “When I married, my husband paraded me in front of people like I was a prize racehorse. I have a nervous stomach, and I’d be sick for hours beforehand. I had to figure out a way to get through those engagements.”
“What did you do?”
He smiled, feeling relaxed for the first time that night. “I promise not to.”
“I found a book called The Lost Art of Conversation, by Horatio Sheafe Krans. I probably should have read Emily Post instead, but I’m one to look to the masters first, so I muddled through each of the essays, and do you know what I learned?”
He put his hand up to his heart. “Tell me, Mrs. Bellmont, and save me from a life of solitude.”
She laughed. “It all comes to this.” She raised one hand in the air like a preacher. “Ask questions.”
“Precisely. Begin every conversation by asking a question of the other person. It never fails me. People love to talk about themselves.” She looked, once again, over at Frances, who was now talking with Mr. Wainwright, and then back at Nathaniel. “Mr. Fye, you must come visit us. This isn’t the setting to talk with Frances properly.”
“You might think I’m too old for her. I’m thirty-two.”
“Frances is twenty. Quite old enough to marry. My husband’s ten years older than I am. I see nothing wrong with it. Anyway, her father will like it if you call on her at our home. He’ll be delighted that a man of your reputation is interested in Frances.” She took another sip of her champagne.
“Do you think she would consider me?”
Her face softened further as her eyes turned a deeper shade of gray. “I didn’t raise a fool, Mr. Fye.”
“That’s kind. Thank you.” He forgot himself for a moment, forgot his terrible wanting of young Frances Bellmont and his paralyzing shyness. The room was beautiful and so were his party guests, and, in the company of Mrs. Bellmont, he felt like the kind of man who laughed at parties and thought of questions and answers. It was good, this, to have people around him, and he felt hope, too, for a future that might include the beguiling Frances Bellmont and her lovely mother.
Then, he noticed Frances and Walt across the room in a corner by themselves. Frances leaned into Walt, whispering something in his ear. Walt flushed and shook his head. A moment later Walt left Frances and came to stand next to him. “Excuse me, Mrs. Bellmont, but it’s getting late, and our prodigy here needs his beauty rest.”
Mrs. Bellmont set her glass on the table behind them. “Oh, of course. It’s getting late for us, too.” She waved to Frances. “Time to go, darlin’.”
Frances stood next to Ralph Landry now; he poured more champagne in her glass. “But we just arrived,” said Frances.
“Nathaniel has a busy day tomorrow,” said Walt. Nathaniel stared at him. He’d never heard Walt sound so cold. What had happened?
Frances glared at Walt while drinking the rest of her champagne in one swallow.
Everyone else bustled about, getting ready to leave. Goodbyes were made until it was only the Bellmont women left, standing in the doorway, and Walt, gathering the empty champagne bottles.
“Good night, Mr. Fye,” Frances said. “It was awfully nice of you to invite us.” Behind them, Walt flung bottles into the apple crate. Frances leaned forward, pulling at the lapel of Nathaniel’s suit jacket, and whispered in his ear. “Please tell me I’ll see you again soon?”
“I would like that very much.”
“Mr. Fye’s agreed to call on us at the house when he returns from California,” said Mrs. Bellmont to her daughter.
Frances gave Nathaniel her hand. “Something to look forward to then, even though it seems terribly far away.” She paused, looking up at him from under thick lashes. “I can’t remember a better evening.”
Nathaniel kissed both women’s hands and bid them good night. After he closed the door, he turned toward Walt, grinning. “She wants to see me again. I can hardly believe it.”
“I don’t think Frances Bellmont’s a good idea.” Walt went to the table and poured a last bit of champagne into his glass from the open bottle on the table.
“Why? Did something happen between you?”
“Let’s just say I know women, and she’s trouble.” Walt downed the champagne in one gulp and thumped the glass down on the table. “You could have your pick of women, you know, if you could conquer this shyness.”
“I tried tonight, Walt. I thought you’d be pleased.” He deflated, like a cake just taken from the oven into a cold room.
“I want you to be happy. I know you’re lonely, the way we work all the time. Hell, so am I. But you have to be careful of beautiful women. They come at a price.”
“The most important decision of any man’s life is who he chooses as his wife. Remember that.” Walt picked up his jacket from one of the chairs and draped it over his arm. “Miss Bellmont is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. That also makes her the most dangerous.”
Walt was out the door before Nathaniel could think of what to say.