"Shh!" Simonetta craned her head in the dark. After a minute passed without interruption, she relaxed and embraced Charles. "Oh, thank heavens it wasn't my governess."
"Even with the signed letter between our fathers, we have to be careful." He held her tight.
"Do we really have to wait years?"
"Afraid so." He sighed.
"Charles? What's wrong?" She leaned back to see him a little better in the dim lighting.
"I uhh … everything is fine." He forced a smile.
She caressed his cheek. "You, sir, are a terrible liar. Something is bothering you these past few weeks. Your eyes keep going distant. Now what is it? You know you can tell me anything."
He took a deep breath to collect his thoughts. "I feel … so guilty."
"Guilty?" She chuckled. "Guilty about what?"
His finger traced her chin. "Us. That I have you. Please, don't take that wrong. I'm not even sure how to say this … but my father … "
She furrowed her brow. "I haven't seen him around at all. With the holiday concerts coming, it is very unusual. Is he alright?"
He shook his head. "I am afraid not. He went to such lengths to secure our future … had I known I would have stopped him."
"Charles, what did he do?"
"Mother said it best." He ran a hand through his hair leaving it mussed. "He sold his soul."
She inhaled sharply.
"The Stradivarius purchased our future."
"Oh God. Charles!"
"I know." His head fell into his hands. "That was more than just an instrument to him. Much more than I ever truly understood. He's been little more than a ghost since then."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner? There must be something we can do."
He looked her in the eyes and took her hand. "We've been trying to find it, but the buyer is illusive."
"Working on it."
She brushed his cheek. "For the sake of his sacrifice we need to be discrete. I love you. Let me know if I can do anything to help."
He embraced her in a hug. "I'll see you at the holiday concerts?"
The carriage halted before Damrosch's door. Charles and Nadir exited chatting idly. Christine leaned forward and clasped Erik's gloved hand. He drew back with a grunt.
"I know you're not in a festive mood, Darling. But this will be good for you. Damrosch hasn't seen you in a while. It will be just a nice quiet evening around his hearth."
Erik gripped the cane and leaned back in his seat.
"Just a few hours. It's all I ask." Stubbornly, she held her hand out for him. Her muscles ached before he leaned forward and pushed out of the seat to exit the carriage.
She smiled as they walked up to the front door where Damrosch rushed out to greet them. "Good evening! So wonderful to see you Erik and Christine. Come in. I have mulled wine waiting in the great room."
The room was draped in ribbons and greenery strung in garlands. High-backed chairs were set for a nice cozy conversation. Erik settled into one near the corner. His empty eyes stared at the tree.
Around him the others laughed and smiled. Their cups clinked as they drank.
Empty. Hollow as a rotted oak tree, he sat there as the world moved on without him. None of this mattered. He couldn't smile through this pain. Couldn't feel anything through the pain.
"Hold on, that appears to be our late arrival. Excuse me a moment." Damrosch left the room.
Erik sighed and huddled a little deeper into the chair. Only them. No one else. It was hard enough with their words grating off his frayed nerves. He didn't need anything more. He shut his eyes.
"Well now, someone looks a bit under weather. I was going to wait to give him his gift until later. But perhaps this may brighten his spirits."
Erik opened his eyes and looked up to find Andrew Carnegie standing before him with an immense grin. The weight of something slid onto his lap stole his attention.
He glanced down to find the familiar leather case. His heart ceased to beat for a moment. Tentatively he opened the first clasp. Then the second.
No one spoke. No one said a word.
Inch by inch he opened the case until the lights caught on her gleaming finish. The strings beckoned to him. He could not pull his gloves off fast enough.
He cradled her in his shaking hands just inhaling that familiar scent. A tear rolled down his cheek.
"Merry Christmas to the most deserving man I know." Carnegie held up the mulled wine in a toast. "Now, let's hear a little overdue music."
In the glow of the heath, Erik rose from the chair and stood up straight for the first time in months. He gave her a quick tuning. When her true voice rose into the air, he smiled.
"Thank you. I am whole again."
The End of this novel, but there is one more ... see you in the fifth and final leg!