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Over the door hung a wooden sign, carved in the shape of a violin, snow gathered in its curves and crevices. It waved in the wind and urged me forward, but I hesitated. I meant to knock, but my hand seemed to have other ideas; it hovered before the heavy wood door, and I was annoyed to see it trembling.
For the third time, I gathered myself together; took a deep breath; checked my shoes, my jacket; ran my palms against the little bit of stubble on my chin to warm them with the friction. Roberto taunted from several yards away: “Just admit it, Luca; you're scared. You'll never do it.” He leaned against the wall of the building I had just left, the varnish-maker's shop owned by our father, and peeled away at the dead skin around his fingernails while he waited for me to give it up and come back. He whistled a jeering tune, and it came out in puffs of breath against the freezing air.
My brother's tune was what gave me the courage. I seethed with anger at his lack of his confidence, his surety that I would amount to nothing.
My knock was quick and firm.
Roberto's mouth hung open. “Come on, Luca,” he called. “Come back. Leave the lofty dreams to people who can afford them.”
“I'm not going to let Mother starve,” I said. “You do as you like.” As the door was pulled open, I turned my back on him. I was only a few doors away, but I felt as though I was entering another world and leaving Roberto behind.
There was almost too much for my senses to take in at once: the swish of a heavy silken skirt, the smell of frying butter and onions, the glitter of candlelight against gold. And a voice that sounded warmer than all of it saying, “Hurry, come in out of the cold. You'll freeze.”
I'd seen her before, of course: Francesca Stradivari, the Master's youngest daughter. There was no mistaking the Stradivaris in church or about the marketplace; their silks and satins, golds and brocades, stood out against our wools and homespun like...well, like satin against goat wool, actually. Francesca was tall and thin, like her father, and her hair shone no less than her garments, even from across the marketplace or the furthest pew in the church. But in person, there in the candlelit hall, I could see the maple-red and gold that shimmered amidst the brown curls. And I could see her eyes: as clear and bright as the finest amber I used in my varnish. They glowed, and I felt my cold cheeks burn under her inspection.
I coughed, then tried to gather my wits together. My wits tended to be my firmest defense against all manners of danger, be it from bullies, difficult customers, or a pair of bewitching eyes. Not that I'd had much experience with the last.
I gave a small bow. “Luca Graziano, at your service.”