A Stirring in the Heart
There is a murmur in my heart. . . .
Bantry Hill Estate, Hudson River Valley
Late November 1875
No, no! Assolutamente non! I cannot do this, Michael!”
“Pauli, listen to me! I told you, Dempsey will be with you the entire time. He and the handler will see to the horse. You will have nothing to do except to sign the papers.”
“I do not like the horses, Michael! You know I do not like the horses!”
“You need not like the horse, Pauli! The handler has been paid to bring him from the ship to the stables. You will simply go with Dempsey in case he should need your help.”
“What help? I would be of no help!”
Susanna, on her way down the hall in search of some clean sketch paper for Caterina, stopped short at the sound of raised voices coming from Michael’s office. She wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping, but it would have been impossible not to overhear the boisterous dialogue taking place between Michael and Paul Santi.
Neither of the two men sounded angry, merely persistent. Some of their exchange was in English, some in Italian, but Susanna understood enough to gather that Michael had a new horse arriving at the harbor and was insisting that Paul accompany Dempsey to claim the animal.
Clearly, Paul had other ideas.
“You know I am no good with the horses, Michael.”
“I know you are afraid of the horses, Pauli.”
“No, not afraid. Terrified. I am terrified of the nasty beasts! You know this—and the horses know it also!”
“I am not asking you to ride the horse, Pauli, merely to go with Dempsey.”
“Why does Dempsey need anyone to go with him? Why can he not go alone?”
“I told you. There will be papers to sign.” Michael lowered his voice. “Have you forgotten that Liam cannot read?”
Silence. Then, “Oh, all right, all right! I will go! But you remember, cugino: if your precious horse ends up in the ocean and me with him, my death will be on your head!”
Susanna smiled. She was used to these impassioned outbursts by the lively young Italian. Paul and Michael frequently sparred, but seldom about anything of real importance. She suspected that some of their disputes were deliberately instigated—sometimes by Paul, sometimes by Michael—simply because both of them enjoyed the verbal fencing. Michael often sounded amused during their contests, and it was common to see them both laughing and pounding each other good-naturedly on the back only minutes later, like schoolboys pleased with their own cleverness.
Just then Paul emerged from Michael’s office, caught sight of her, and threw up his hands. “Why do I bother, I wonder? Always he wins!”
“What have you gotten yourself into this time?”
Paul rolled his eyes, giving a palms-up gesture of futility. “This is not my idea, you can be sure! It’s all Michael’s doing. He insists that I go with Dempsey to the harbor to fetch one of his ill-tempered beasts!”
Michael appeared in the doorway, dressed in a dark wool jacket and white shirt—more businesslike apparel than he usually wore at home. Was he going away again? Susanna tried to suppress a pang of disappointment at the thought.
He wore his dark glasses, too, and she wondered whether he had put them on for her benefit. He seldom wore the glasses except in her presence, a fact that she found increasingly puzzling—and annoying.
“Paul would have me believe I endanger his life by sending him to the docks,” Michael said. “The truth is, I suspect he’s eager to go, to avoid working this afternoon.”
Paul feigned an injured look. “Susanna,” he said solemnly, “if I do not return, I would like you to have my violin.”
“But I don’t play the violin, Paul.”
“All the same, I want you to have it. In my memory.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, Paul.” She imitated his grave tone. “You can be sure I’ll pray for your safe return.”
“You see,” Paul said to Michael, “even Susanna knows you have placed my life at great risk.”
One eyebrow went up as Michael crossed his arms over his chest. “I believe Dempsey is waiting for you.”
“You are a hard man, Michael.”
“So you have said. Many times. Now go.”
“Sì, I go.” Paul shot an impish smile at Susanna, then hurried off down the hall.
Susanna watched him go, relieved that Michael and his cousin were obviously back to normal in their relationship. She had developed a genuine fondness for Paul Santi, a bond forged the day Paul had finally divulged to Susanna what Michael had refused to reveal about her sister.
It had been Paul who explained about Deirdre’s alcoholism, her turbulent and disastrous marriage to Michael, and the events that had led up to her death on the treacherous mountain road after a violent argument. Convinced that by withholding the truth from Susanna, Michael would only inflict more pain on her and, ultimately, on himself, Paul had told Susanna what Michael would not, risking his own relationship with the cousin he revered.
When he learned that Paul had broken his confidence about Deirdre and their marriage, Michael had been furious, bitterly denouncing Paul for a deliberate betrayal of trust. Only after much explanation and persuasion on Susanna’s part had Michael finally moved past his anger and accepted that Paul had acted with honorable intentions. Paul had seen what Michael could not: that in his efforts to keep Susanna’s memories of her sister untarnished, Michael was actually hurting her, fostering a distorted image of Deirdre, and encouraging Susanna’s increasing suspicion of himself.
To Susanna’s vast relief, the two had finally reconciled. There seemed to be no lingering evidence of the rift between them.
She suddenly realized that Michael was still standing in the doorway, waiting.
“I . . . I was looking for some fresh drawing paper for Caterina,” she said, embarrassed by her own woolgathering. “She seems to have used up her entire stock.”
“In here.” He motioned Susanna into his office. “Cati likes very much to draw, no? Does she have any particular ability, do you think?”
“Actually, I think she shows quite a lot of skill for one so young. But, then, Caterina seems to do extremely well in whatever she attempts,” Susanna said. “Except perhaps for her sewing.”
“So I have heard,” he said dryly. “Just so you’ll know, Rosa, too, has tried to interest Cati in the sewing, also with no success.”
Susanna smiled to herself. Rosa Navaro, the famed opera star, had long been a close friend of the family—a neighbor and a surrogate aunt to Michael’s daughter. Caterina adored her; if even Rosa could not interest Caterina in sewing, it might well be a hopeless cause.
Susanna waited as he crossed the room and opened the door of a floor-to-ceiling storage cabinet. As deftly as if he could see the shelves, he retrieved a thick pad of paper and handed it to her. “She likes best to draw the animals, no?”
“Yes. Horses are her favorite subject.”
“Sì, she loves the horses. Already she rides well.” He paused. “And you, Susanna? Do you ride?”
“Oh, no! No, I’ve never ridden. I’m afraid I share Paul’s apprehension about horses. I’ve always been rather frightened of them.”
“Ah, but there is nothing to be afraid of,” he said, coming around to his desk and resting his hands on the back of the chair. “We must respect them, of course. But there is no need for fear.”
He paused. “You think it strange that I would say such a thing.”
It was a statement, not a question. And indeed, Susanna had been thinking exactly that, given the riding accident that had caused his blindness. Deirdre had written only the sketchiest of details about the incident: apparently Michael had been jumping his favorite horse when a pheasant flew out of a hedge and startled him. The horse’s forelegs had become tangled in the hedge, and he failed to clear the jump. Michael was thrown, striking his head against a rock. According to the doctors, the blow caused irreparable damage to his optic nerve, blinding him for life.
Michael nodded as if he had read her thoughts. “What happened to me is most likely the reason for Paul’s fear. But it wasn’t the horse’s fault. It was simply an accident.”
He indicated that Susanna should sit down, and he lowered himself into the chair behind the desk and shuffled some papers out of his way. Although the dark glasses tended to put her off, his blindness evoked no feelings of pity for him. Sympathy, perhaps—after all, life must be much more difficult for him than for those who could see. But not pity. To the contrary, she felt admiration that he could live so fully, so generously, in spite of the obvious difficulties his disability presented.
But, then, Michael defied just about every preconceived notion she’d ever held of him. He was a man of many facets, a different kind of man entirely from what she once feared he might be.
He was also a man who could, with absolutely no warning, kindle feelings that confused and agitated her. She was attracted to him. Strongly attracted, in a way she had never before experienced. Consequently, she found herself torn between trying to avoid him and wanting to be near him.
According to Paul, the attraction wasn’t entirely one-sided. Michael, he insisted, was coming to have “much affection” for Susanna. So far, Susanna had managed not to delve too deeply into the implications of this remark. Nevertheless, she couldn’t entirely dismiss the quick dart of excitement that grazed her heart. Could Paul possibly be right? And if so . . .
She realized with a start where her thoughts were leading her and felt a sudden urgency to distance herself from the man across the desk. She stood so abruptly that her chair almost tipped over. “Well . . .,” she stammered, “I expect I should be getting back upstairs to Caterina. She’ll be wondering what’s become of me.”
Michael got to his feet, his expression puzzled as he lifted a hand to delay her. “I was about to ask you if you would mind working with me this afternoon. Paul will be away, and I’d like to follow the Braille through the new sections of the Anthem. It would help me very much if you would play the piano so I can concentrate on the score.”
Susanna’s old uncertainty, the familiar feelings of ineptness, surfaced immediately, and she hesitated.
“If you’d rather not—”
“No . . . no, it’s not that. I’ll be glad to help. If I can, that is.”
He smiled a little. “When will you ever dismiss this foolish sense of inadequacy, Susanna? You are much more accomplished than you’re willing to credit yourself. Indeed, I suspect if I could ever catch you unawares, I would discover that you are a most gifted pianist. But every time I enter the room you stop playing.”
Susanna couldn’t think how to reply. Michael’s incomparable musicianship intimidated her to the point that whatever ability she might possess invariably froze in his presence. It was one thing to accompany him and Caterina during one of their lighthearted evening songfests, but quite another to perform music of a more serious nature for Michael alone—especially one of his own compositions.
“I’ll be in the music room most of the afternoon. Why don’t you come down after Caterina is settled in for her nap?”
For a moment, Susanna found herself staring, caught up in the warmth of his smile, the stubborn wave of dark hair that tumbled over his forehead, the breadth of his shoulders, the strength of his features that could soften when least expected—
She blinked, forcing herself to answer. “That won’t be too late? I mean—aren’t you going away?”
He frowned. “Going away?”
“I thought perhaps you were going downriver . . .”
He passed a hand over the sleeve of his coat, shaking his head. “No, not tonight. I’ll be at home tonight.”
Susanna’s earlier disappointment vanished. “Well . . . all right then.” She paused to clear her throat. “I’ll just take this paper up to Caterina, and come down later.”
It was impossible, of course, no more than a fanciful notion. But Susanna almost felt as though he were watching her as she left his office and started down the hall.