“Again, from the top, Piano-Girl. You’re not doing it right.”

Miss Poulan tossed her heavy hair behind her shoulder and cleared her throat. Adjusting her stance, the older woman prepared to sing.

Maren took a breath. Her fingers ached from practicing with the self-proclaimed ‘Diva of Brisby,’ and the notes of the aria’s accompaniment blurred on the page in front of her. In fact, the black and white keys of the rehearsal room piano wobbled most disturbingly. Maren tilted her head at the keyboard until the nauseating motion stopped. How many times had they been through the aria already this afternoon? Thirteen? Twenty? She wasn’t sure, only that they’d started when the late sun still slanted in the windows and it was full dark now… Nevertheless, Maren bent her stiffening fingers to the keys and began to play under Miss Poulan’s stern glare.

She wasn’t a bad singer, Maren mused as she listened to Miss Poulan belt forth the melody. In fact, her voice sounded rather lovely. But the woman herself tended to be…

“Piano-Girl! You make it sound so heavy!”

…Pretentious.

Maren closed her eyes against the shrieking tirade. Dropping her exhausted hands from the keys, she let them hang straight down in an effort to relax the muscles.

“Ugh! I can’t work like this! Nothing will be ready for the Variety Show at this rate!” Miss Poulan stalked about the room, her multiple bracelets jingling with every dramatic movement of her arms. “And you! Piano-Girl!” The raging diva advanced on Maren, snapping her fingers in front of the young woman’s face. “You are lousy! I will have another pianist. Never have I sang so badly! You can’t accompany me properly. Five rehearsals like this — FIVE! I give you more than enough time and now, no more! The manager will hear of this!”

Maren sighed as the angry woman hustled out of the rehearsal room. Maren stretched her arms above her head. The ensuing silence felt good. Leaning her head back, she looked at the worn ceiling, studying the plaster cracks she knew by heart. How had she let herself get stuck as an accompanist for hire? At one time she’d been good enough for solos, for full concerts with her name as the headliner. How had she ended up at the mercy of people like Miss Poulan?

Oh, right. Stage fright. That crippling fear of what lay beyond the curtain. Being an accompanist meant being in the pit where you were hidden from looking like a fool, hidden from judgment, and immune to the paralyzing anxiety. Maren made an exasperated sound. If only she could grow a pair, stand confident under the stage lights…

“Rough session, eh?”

Cal leaned in the doorway, his dark eyes watching her with sympathy.

“You heard?” she asked, leaning forward to gather her music.

“With that woman’s voice, how could I not?” he retorted, smile lines crinkling the edges of his eyes.

Maren snorted, slipping the sheets of music into her briefcase. She pushed back the bench, closed the dust cover over the black and white keys. She walked to the door.

Cal blocked her path. His gaze was serious again, direct. “Don’t let her get you down,” he said. “Your a better musician than any of them give you credit for.”

“Yeah, right,” she muttered, trying to step around him. He put out a hand, grasping her gently by the arm. Their eyes met, and he suddenly looked awkward. He let go.

“I mean it,” he said. “They haven’t heard you playing like I have, after everyone else has left. You’re good. Don’t let people like that diva tear you down.”

Maren took a breath and nodded. “Thanks,” she said, touching him on the arm briefly before heading up the stairwell. She felt his eyes on her until she rounded the corner.

As she passed the new piano on the way to the backstage door, she felt eyes on her again, but she didn’t see Cal anywhere in the shadows.

* * *
This is the second installment of an ongoing serial story — catch up via the Serials page!

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