* * *
Notes bounced and danced through the air, carrying Ariella away into the flow of the music. Her fingers gently skated across the piano keys. Her voice melted into the melody, and for a moment, she lost herself to it.
“You remind me of your mother when you’re like this.” Her father’s deep voice cut through the sweetness of the song. Ariella pulled her fingers from the piano keys as though they burnt her fingertips. Her father’s presence spoiled the air of the room.
“Father.” She swung her legs around the piano bench to face him. Henry Trident stood in the doorway of her music room. His hands relaxed at his sides, studying his youngest daughter, his graying hair swept back from his face, which his thick beard covered.
“Don’t stop on my account.” He stepped further into the room, glancing at the sheets on the music shelf. “Lord knows I’ve paid enough for all those lessons over the years.” He forced a smile, but she’d become an expert on the degree of his grins. He was about to bring her bad news and was doing his best to lay pleasant groundwork before he dropped the bombshell.
“I was just playing around.” She folded her hands in her lap and forced her own sweet smile for his benefit. The question she wanted to ask would have to wait. He had an agenda, and it was always best to let him go first when they spoke.
“Hmm.” He made his way to the piano and struck a key. They remained silent as it finished its vibration.
“You’re home early.” Ariella closed the folder with her sheet music and brought it to the desk across the room, sliding it into the top drawer.
“My meeting finished early,” he said. She’d never been able to find out exactly what her father did to earn all the money he brought home, the expensive cars, the enormous estate she enjoyed living on, but the secrecy of it told her it wasn’t anything good. You don’t shove good deeds into the shadows.
She closed the drawer and turned to face him, pressing herself against the desk. Her father had gifted her the music room for her sixteenth birthday six years ago after he’d had enough of hearing her practice her instruments in her bedroom. Her father had soundproofed the music room so she wouldn’t disturb the rest of the household with her ‘hobby’.
“I was meeting with Robert Faulkins,” he said.
Warning shot fired.
“How is Mr. Faulkins?” She pressed her hands against the desk’s sharp edge, letting it cut into her palms.
“He’s fine.” Henry’s lips spread into a wide but thin grin. The small talk stretched his patience.
“Good.” She nodded.
“Ariella.” He took a deep breath, readying for the big drop. “While I was with him, we discussed your future.”
Another warning shot, closer to the mark now.
“My future?” She couldn’t stop the little laugh escape. “Shouldn’t I have been there for such a discussion?”
“No, not for this sort of talk.” He shook his head, completely ignoring the sarcasm in her tone. “His son, Chad, just finished his business on the east coast. He’s back home now. He’s Robert’s middle son, so he won’t be inheriting the family business unless something happens to Bradley, but he will take on a lot of responsibility. He will be an excellent–.”
“No.” She cut him off with a slash of her hand. “Don’t say it, Father. Please, don’t tell me you sat with Mr. Faulkins, discussing how his middle son would make a good husband for me. Don’t tell me that.” She raised her chin.
“Ariella.” His voice hardens. “Chad will make a good husband. He will provide for you and all the children you’ll have. It’s a good match.”
“I won’t do it.” She’d told him this more than once, and from the frown on his lips, he didn’t care for it any more this time than in the past.
“You are already older than your sisters when they were married, Ariella.” He reminded her. “All of their marriages were arranged, and they never complained. Not one word.”
And they hadn’t. Each of them had taken their marching orders and happily glided down the aisle to their futures.
“None of them wanted anything more than to get married and be spoiled the rest of their lives. They had no dreams, no aspirations. They aren’t me, Father. I do have dreams. Big ones.” She pushed away from the desk, becoming more animated with her speech.
“Dreams?” He said the word like he hated the taste of it. “What dreams? Singing? Playing these little instruments?” He waved his hand around the room at her variety of instruments.
“Yes, Father.” She took several steps toward him. “That’s exactly what I want to do. I want to make music. That’s what I want to do. I’ll get married, but not right now. Not yet.” She took a breath. “Let me chase my dream first. Then I’ll get married. To a man I choose. I swear it, Father, I will get married. And you won’t have to support me. I can make money singing in clubs. Good money. I can get my own apartment, even. You won’t have to support –“
“Enough!” He swiped a hand through the air, his thick, graying eyebrows pulled together. “My daughter, singing in clubs?”
“Concert halls, maybe.” This topic needed to be dealt with gently, and she’d just steamrolled right into it.
“No.” He dropped his hand to his side. “You are my daughter, and my daughters do not stand on stage at a club, or a concert hall, or anywhere else for that matter. You will marry. You will be a good wife, a loving mother, and that’s final. I’m tired of this conversation with you, Ariella.”
Her throat clenched. “You can’t dictate my life,” she said softly, trying to bring down the temperature of his anger. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”
“You are old enough, yes.” He brought his voice down; his hands relaxed at his sides. “But you are my daughter, and it’s my responsibility to be sure you are safe and taken care of.”
“And that I don’t embarrass you,” she added before she could stop herself.
“Yes. That too.” He raised an eyebrow. “I know you think I’m being unfair, but this is how it is in our family. My marriage to your mother was arranged, and we found love with each other. You will too.”
Ariella stared at her father. Her mother had loved her children. She loved the lavish lifestyle Henry kept her in, but she did not love him. Not like a woman should love her husband. Ariella wanted more. She deserved more.
“Robert is having a coming home party for Chad this weekend. You will meet with him then. A casual meeting, so it’s not so awkward.” A warm smile spread across his lips. “When I met your mother for the first time, our parents made it more like a job interview. It was stuffy and awkward.”
“Father, I don’t want to do this.” She willed him to understand, to consider her feelings on the matter. Didn’t her happiness mean something to him?
His smile faded. “I know. But you will.”
She pinched her lips together.
“Saturday is the party. I have a dinner meeting that I can’t get out of, so I will meet you there. I’ll have a car ready for you at eight o’clock. Do not be late, Ariella.” He pointed a long finger at her.
“And if we don’t get along? If he hates me?” She’d make him despise her if it meant she could get her father to forget this insanity.
“He won’t hate you.” He sighed. “How could he? You’re as beautiful as your mother and sharp as a tack. To not love you would be idiocy.”
He played this card so often while she grew up, she’d become immune to it.
“Saturday,” he said again. “And no more nonsense about singing in a club.” He stepped up to her and pushed his forced smile back on. “You understand, this is really for your best.”
She curled her fingers into her palms until her nails cut deep into her flesh.
“I know you want what’s best for me.” She could concede that much without being a liar. But she also knew he wanted what was best for him, maybe more so.
“Good.” His smile warmed, and he patted her cheek. “I’ll let you get back to your piano. Your mother would be so happy to see you playing it.”
Ariella only smiled in response.
The door clicked closed after her father left. Ariella let out a long breath. She went back to her desk and opened the top drawer. Pulling out the music sheets she’d stuffed inside, she lookedat the contract beneath it. She’d been offered a time slot at the Seaside Club on Saturday night. It had been her intention to speak to him about it. But she didn’t have to, not once the conversation got started.
Taking a deep breath, she let the hot tear slip down her cheek untouched.