“Intriguing, frightening and exciting all at the same time.” —Magical Musings AN ARIA FOR LOST SOULS Fresh out of college, Christine Davis is thrilled to begin a summer internship at the prestigious Sante Fe Opera House. But on her first day, she discovers that her dream job has a dark side. Beneath the theater, ghostly music echoes through a sprawling maze of passageways. At first, Christy thinks she’s hearing things. But when a tall masked man steps out of the shadows—and into her arms—she knows he’s not a phantom of her imagination. What she can’t deny is that he is the master of her desire. But when her predecessor—a missing intern—is found dead, Christy wonders if she’s playing with fire…
Release date: October 27, 2015
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 304
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Master of the Opera
The sky soared impossibly blue, studded with cotton clouds worthy of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Driving with the convertible’s top down, Christy soaked up the Southwestern sunshine as she planned to do with absolutely everything.
The wind blew her hair, the short ends whipping around her face, stinging her skin with the perfect thrill of being alive and the mistress of her own destiny. No more classes, no more books, she thought to herself with a grin. No more East Coast gloom and city pressure. Free to be her own person, she zoomed down the highway and into her brand-new life.
The Santa Fe Opera House came into view, the elegant, arching lines of it an extension of the red rock cliff it perched on. Like a raptor of copper and steel, it gazed over the vast basin, a temple to pure sound, a place for the worship of ancestral theater.
Following the signs, she found the backstage area and parked. Grabbing purse, cell phone, and tablet, she swung her legs out of the car. They looked damn decent, thanks to the time she’d put in at the gym. The new stiletto heels she’d squandered some of her graduation money on helped enormously. She strode toward the building and around to the back apron, ready for her first day on the job.
The vaulting ceilings of the open-air theater, designed to look like swathes of fabric but made of steel, cast a deep shadow that made her shiver from the abrupt chill. Pushing her sunglasses onto her head, which also served to hold back her wind-ruffled hair, she opened the back door and peered into the gloom of below stage.
No one seemed to be about, though the door had been unlocked. Her heels clicked on the poured concrete floor, echoing in the perfect acoustics of even this dark working space. Here and there, shrouded stage pieces loomed with dusty magnificence. Where a cover had been shrugged off, a shoulder of gold filigree gleamed. In the deeper shadows, a mirrored sapphire elephant raised its trunk, forever frozen.
“Can I help you?”
Choking back a startled shriek, she whirled on the man who seemed to have crept up behind her. She threw an accusing look at his soft sneaker treads and he gave her a rueful smile.
“Sorry about that. Charles Donovan—Charlie—general manager of the opera. And you’re Christine Davis?”
“Everyone calls me Christy.” She shook the hand he offered. “Sorry—I wasn’t sure which way to go to find your office.”
“Some days even I don’t know.” He flashed her a comfortable grin and tucked his thumbs in the loops of his faded Levi’s. “For all that this theater isn’t as old as the European opera houses, somehow it ended up with labyrinths below stage. This way.”
She followed as he wound back in the other direction. “At least there aren’t catacombs or ancient sewers to get lost in.”
He chuckled, arriving at the door to a tiny office, bright with fluorescent light, and gestured her inside. “No. But to hear the New Agers talk, there’s plenty of Native American burial sites, hidden tunnels, subterranean dwellings, and so forth.”
Charlie shrugged and wedged himself behind the tiny metal desk, piled high with paperwork. Sticky notes covered every surface, including the glowing screen of an apparently ancient laptop perched precariously on one corner.
“You’ll find there’s every kind here, Ms. Davis. Hang around long enough and you’ll find someone who believes in it. Sacred spirals, peyote, reincarnation. You name it. And then there’s the talent.”
“Theater people tend to be superstitious, my dad always says. The smart manager learns to work with that.”
“You have no idea. Ah well, we’re here to keep ’em happy, if only for the season.”
“Mr. Donovan, I—” She’d rehearsed this speech and it came out in a rush. “I want you to know that I’m here to work hard. My dad might have arranged for me to take this apprenticeship at the last minute, but that was just the right opportunity. I want this and I’ll do what it takes.”
“Don’t worry about that. Apprentices are slave labor. You’ll put in your sweat and blood.” He extracted a file folder with surprising efficiency from one teetering pile. “You already have the show schedule. Here’s a preliminary list of prop and set items for each opera. And . . .” Charlie spun his chair around to the sagging industrial bookcase behind him and yanked out an enormous three-ring binder, dropping it on the desk in front of her with a bang and a poof of dust, “. . . our inventory.”
She stared at the binder in dismay. “On paper?”
Charlie grinned and poked a finger at the laptop, which was making an ominous grinding noise. “I’ve been meaning to get to it. And Tara—well, she was only a few days into it before . . .” He trailed off, scratching his scalp. “Most of the staff starts arriving next week—you ought to have a chunk of it done by then. I have Tara’s notes. They might help.”
With a sigh, Christy propped the tome on her lap and flipped through the yellowing pages. “The letters and numbers indicate location?”
“Yeah, in theory. That’s where you come in. The L number is the level. The other codes indicate the exact storage room. Here, let me grab you a map.” Charlie spun back around to frown at the shelves.
“Am I interrupting?”
“Roman!” Christy grinned at her old friend. “I was wondering when I’d get to see you.”
Handsome as ever, Roman leaned in the doorway. He looked to be doing well, from the expensive cut of his chestnut brown hair to the sleek shoes peeking out from under his impeccably tailored suit. He returned Christy’s smile with familiar charm. “I had to stop by, see my sweet girl. But I see that I’m interrupting.”
“Not at all, Mr. Sanclaro!” Charlie popped up from his chair, dusting his hands off on his jeans and leaning over to offer one in welcome. “You know you and your family can stop in anytime. How’s your father?”
“Busy as ever,” Roman replied easily, then turned to Christy. “How about a hug—or are you too grown up for that now?”
“Don’t be silly.” She returned the light embrace, accepting his polite kiss on her cheek—something her ten-year-old self would have sighed over and embroidered into fantasies for weeks. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“I knew the Davises and Sanclaros have long jointly owned the property,” Charlie commented, “but I didn’t realize the families are close.”
Roman rolled his brown eyes. “When Christy and I were growing up, our fathers used to joke about our betrothal—that it would at last resolve the logistics of the Davises owning the actual opera house and mineral rights, while the Sanclaros own all the surrounding property.”
“It wasn’t funny,” Christy put in. That was putting it mildly. Any time Domingo Sanclaro and his son visited them in New York City, she’d been torn between a frenzy of anticipation at seeing her lifelong crush and dread at the older men’s teasing. They were two of a kind, Carlton Davis and the elder Sanclaro, living for the business deal. It never occurred to them that needling an adolescent girl who imagined herself in love with the dashing college boy family friend was so cruel. Roman had always been so patient, however, treating her like a little sister. His sweet girl.
With a rush of warmth, Christy realized she had a hand on Roman’s arm. She let go and grabbed ahold of the unnaturally blue plastic binder.
“Have you seen much of Santa Fe yet?”
“No—I’ve barely just arrived. I’m surprised you even knew I was here.”
He winked. “Your dad told my dad—I’m to look after you.”
“I’m not twelve anymore,” she replied with a bit of irritation. Which immediately melted when Roman’s grin shaded to sexy and he swept her with an appraising look.
“No. You’ve definitely grown up. Let me at least take you to dinner tonight. We have more five-star restaurants per capita than any other city in the U.S, you know.”
“I didn’t know.” Roman Sanclaro was flirting with her. Her adolescent self would never forgive her if she didn’t go. “Yes—I’d love to.”
“Excellent. At least we can appease the fathers. Shall I pick you up around eight, then?”
“Perfect. I’m at the El Rey on Cerillos until I find a place.”
Roman raised an eyebrow at Charlie. “Nothing but the best for our new staff?”
Charlie shook his head. “Not much of a budget for apprentices.”
“Surely your dad can spring for better than that place? I’m surprised he’d let you stay there.”
She maintained the easy smile on her face. She’d kept the car because that was practical, but the rest she was determined to do on her own. Daddy’s girl. One only needed to hear that so many times in a lifetime. “It’s nice. Clean. I like it. Eight o’clock, then?”
“I’m looking forward to it. And I’ll get out of the way now.” But he hesitated.
“Did you need something else, Mr. Sanclaro?” Charlie had his thumbs tucked in his belt loops, all courtesy for the son of the opera’s patron.
Roman glanced at her. Back at Charlie. “My father is wondering if there is further word about . . . our little problem?”
“No. The police have no leads. Tara’s family is pushing to have the lower levels searched again, but Detective Sanchez thinks she took off. Official stance is no evidence of foul play, there’s nothing more they can do.”
Roman cleared his throat and Charlie raised his eyebrows. “I’m sure Ms. Davis is perfectly well aware of what became of her predecessor.”
“I don’t want you to worry.” Roman turned to her, his brown eyes warm. “All the fuss will die down. Tara was a bit flighty. Probably thought she fell in love and took off for Acapulco, eh, Charlie?”
Charlie nodded in slow agreement, a line between his bushy gray brows. He seemed about to say something but stopped himself. It hadn’t occurred to Christy to be concerned. Her father had made it sound as if Tara, the previous apprentice, had simply run off, much as Roman described.
“Is there reason to be concerned?”
“Would Carlton Davis send his daughter here if there was?” Roman waved his hands as if encompassing the greater world, then sobered, giving her a very serious look. “Besides, I’ll protect you. From the theater ghost.”
Christy laughed and Charlie shook his head. Every theater had some kind of ghost or legend. It was as necessary as lighting and curtains.
“They say,” Roman’s voice dropped an octave and he flicked his eyes dramatically at the floor, “that he lurks below, scarred, deformed even. At night, after the audiences have left and the stage crew is cleaning, they can hear him sobbing, calling out the name of his love, who had drowned in the underground lake. “Christine,” he keened the name. “Christeeen.”
The hair stood up on the back of her neck, a shiver passing over her.
“Was that her name?” she whispered.
Roman grinned at her. “Gotcha.”
“Oh!” Christy clutched the notebook to her chest, hating that she’d been so gullible. She tried to smile.
“New girl initiation—don’t be mad.”
“I’m not,” she assured him. Silly. He’d always been able to sucker her into his jokes. Apparently she hadn’t grown up that much.
“I’ll see you tonight.” With a jaunty wink and a wave, Roman left. “Sorry about that.” She turned to Charlie, hoping she hadn’t seemed unprofessional. “I really had no idea he’d stop by.”
He shrugged. “We’re pretty low key around here. And I’m not going to argue about anything that keeps the Sanclaros happy.”
Christy took the map and the inventory book and gave herself the tour. Right after Roman left, the phone had rung and Charlie had rolled his eyes, shrugged his helplessness, and waved her on her way. Her dad always said managing a theater was 95 percent soothing ruffled feathers and it seemed that was what Charlie did.
The enormous freight elevator looked like standard institutional issue. She stabbed at the cracked down arrow and waited. The gears cranked more ominously than Charlie’s laptop, accompanied by the screech of a tormented belt. When the doors shuddered open—the floor of the elevator a good hand’s length above the one she stood on—revealing the garage-like interior, which smelled as if feral cats had pissed inside, she decided to save using it for transporting heavy stuff. And only when there would be a lot of people around to hear her if she got trapped in it.
Instead, she found the central spiral staircase and descended into the dimly lit lower levels, deciding to start at the bottom and work her way back up. The hollow clanking of her heels echoed through the silent rooms. In another week the space would teem with people and noise. Bursting with energy and excitement.
She couldn’t wait.
Until then, silence and peace reigned, which was why she took advantage of the time. Tomorrow she’d be back in jeans and tennies—and geez, maybe a sweater—ready to dig into the deep and dusty layers. Today was for orienting, despite the ultimately unnecessary interview outfit, which now felt way too skimpy in the chilly bowels of the opera house.
She flicked on another set of lights, the fluorescents taking a moment to catch, then flickering on with an insectile buzz. Beyond it, she caught another sound, a whisper of movement. A draft of colder air brushed past her, making the small hairs on her arms stand up and her scalp prickle.
Mice or rats, most likely. Or pack rats, in this area. The woman who ran the hotel had warned her about the pack rats.
Still, for a moment, she thought she’d heard music.
An echo, perhaps. The expectation of the space, the perfect acoustics. She fancied that the building absorbed all the music and played it back to itself when everyone was gone, the timbers saturated with it.
Soon, real music would crash through—out of tune, cadence, and context. The same phrases repeated in cacophonous opposition to someone else’s practice run. Chaos and tumult.
There it was again. A whisper of song. A honeyed tenor.
Curious, compelled, she followed it down the corridor, passing the various storage rooms, holding their eclectic treasures in darkness. The hallway ended abruptly in a dead end, a good thirty feet past the last lightbulb. Christy consulted her map in the dim light. If this was the right level, the hall should keep going to another set of storage rooms.
She retraced her steps, frowning at the map, then at the end of the hall again. The featureless wall hadn’t changed. Had the door been covered over or sealed? She set the map and inventory notebook down and walked back to the end of the hall, ran her hands over it. Not drywall, but solid plaster, cool and damp to the touch. If it had been closed off, it didn’t seem to be recent.
Her fingertips caught on a small flaw in the smooth surface and she bent to see it better in the shadowy green light. A circle cut into the plaster, with what appeared to be a set of links dangling from it, like a collar and chain. It was crossed by a whip, the braided design painstakingly worked in.
She gasped, then swallowed it, glad no one had heard her.
She glanced around, uncannily convinced that someone watched, listened. Unable to help herself, she traced the emblem with her nail, wondering what it meant and why it was here.
And why something about it thrilled her, sent her blood percolating with intrigue and a desire to know more. Along with a strange familiarity.
A breath of cold air swept across the back of her neck again, and she stood abruptly, spinning on her heels and putting her back to the wall.
No one was there.
And yet . . . that tenor voice, golden and sweet, sang somewhere far in the distance, too distant for her to make out the melody, but the notes strummed across her stimulated nerves, soothing and arousing. She wanted to find it, to hear it better.
The song ended in a soft laugh. And then a whisper.
She showered before her date—for the second time that day. By the time she got back to her little room, she’d felt covered in grime and the crawling sensation of cobwebs on her flesh. Turning the water on as hot as she could stand it, she reveled in the burn, heating her skin, loosening her muscles, and driving away that odd uneasiness.
Though she’d wanted to ask Charlie about that sealed-over door, he’d been on the phone—still or again—when she finally found her way back to his office. Now, with a bit of distance from the place, she thought maybe she wouldn’t bring it up. Nothing was listed as stored on that level. Maybe the rock walls had become unstable or something.
No sense letting Charlie know they’d spooked her. Imagining the theater ghost, crying Christine.
The hotel shower gel smelled of pine needles, a surprisingly sensual fragrance, like the depths of the forest, where no light filtered through. She rubbed it into her skin, enjoying a long-held fantasy about how it might be to have the devastatingly handsome Roman Sanclaro finally kiss her.
She updated it in her mind. He’d grown up, become more fully a man now, with his MBA and a more worldly air. He was the type to ask first, with that ironic smile to show his nod toward the gentlemanly thing. His full lips would be warm, maybe with a hint of after-dinner brandy on his breath. It would be everything she’d dreamed about, way back when.
The image of the carved whip and collar floated through her mind, dark and taunting. It worried her that she seemed fixated on it. Not a good sign. But all of this was new to her. Feeling a little emotional and uncertain was natural. What mattered was how she handled it. With rationality, not obsession.
She pushed the image away, locking it in with the other bad thoughts she no longer allowed herself to have. Those days were past. She could be normal and happy. “I control the environment of my mind,” she said out loud, repeating what the counselors had helped her affirm.
With a last rinse, she made herself turn off the gloriously hot water and step out of the shower. Toweling off briskly, she rubbed in the lotion that matched the body wash but didn’t linger over it. On the counter, her little diamond watch—another graduation present from her dad—showed she didn’t have much time left. Fortunately her pixie bob would dry fast, with a little gel and some tousling. Her father hadn’t been thrilled about the change, but she loved the spunkiness of it.
He did not know about her tattoo. Never would, if she could help it.
She went for the standard little black dress. That should be sophisticated enough for wherever Roman took her. The short skirt and her splurge stilettos made her tanned legs look long. Adding a pair of dangly earrings—silver spirals with a pinpoint of turquoise that she’d gotten for a steal at the Indian Market—she spiked up her hair a little more, then did her eyes up all smoky.
“Look out, Roman Sanclaro!” she told her reflection. The new, grown-up her was saucy like that.
Unfortunately, the new her didn’t have a matching coat—and she was pretty sure her usual bubble coat made her look twelve. Not what she was going for. Oh, well, hotel to car to restaurant, right? She could pull that off.
Roman pulled up in front of the lobby at exactly eight o’clock. Before she got to the passenger door, he’d come around the car and opened it for her with a reproving smile. “Allow me.”
She slid into the low-slung sports car—quite a trick in the short skirt not to flash the guy standing right there. Pulling on her seat belt while he walked back around the car, she took in the glowing lights of the dash. The gentlemanly thing seemed nice enough, but it was weird to sit and wait like this. For lack of anything better to do, she folded her hands in her lap.
“You look gorgeous.” Roman flashed her a grin as he settled into his seat. He trailed a light finger down her bare arm. “But we’re at pretty high altitude—spring comes late here. Won’t you be cold?”
She wouldn’t have been, if he hadn’t made her wait while he opened the door. “Not unless you’re making me eat outside. And thank you. You look spiffy yourself.”
He did look good, in his sleek gray suit jacket and matching shirt, open at the neck. They zoomed down Cerillos toward the Plaza, then around and up Canyon Road. There Roman was forced to slow, weaving his way past the narrow, crooked turns and laughing tourists enjoying the darkening spring evening, despite the snow-chilled air sliding down from the snowy slopes above.
At a one-story white building, sandwiched amid the galleries, he handed the valet a folded bill and escorted her with a guiding hand on her lower back.
“Geronimo is one of my favorites,” he murmured in her ear. “I thought it would be suitable for your introduction to Santa Fe dining.”
Roman didn’t have to say a word to the hostess—they were seated immediately in a cozy candlelit booth, nestled between curved, low white walls. A waiter showed Roman a bottle and uncorked it at his nod of approval, pouring for her first. When he left, Roman raised his glass in a toast.
“To the most beautiful girl in the room.”
She clinked her glass against his, hoping she hadn’t blushed. The wine tasted surprisingly good.
“It’s good. I don’t usually drink red.”
He sat back and slung an arm along the top of the curved seat, his tailored shirt tightening against his pecs. “It’s one of their best—I knew you’d appreciate it.”
The waiter returned, setting down a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
“And you already ordered.”
“I hope you don’t mind.” He gestured at the plate with his wineglass. “I called ahead, to make sure they’d have all my favorite things. So tonight would be a special treat for you.”
Even in her sweetest fantasies, she hadn’t imagined this kind of thoughtful attention from him. Though that stuff on the crackers looked suspiciously like raw meat. Her father didn’t hold with food he couldn’t identify the ingredients of from five feet away.
“Steak tartare.” He snagged one and popped it in his mouth, eyes closing in pleasure as he chewed. She took one and put it on her little plate, resisting the urge to poke it with her finger, hearing her father’s voice in her head.
“It won’t bite you.” He watched her, a laugh sparking in his brown eyes. “Just try a taste.”
That’s why she was doing all this, right? The new, adventurous, anything-is-possible Christy. She took a bite.
It was raw meat. But, as with the wine, the flavor spread in her mouth, rich and full, tingling her senses. She smiled at him. “Delicious.”
“Me? Or the steak tartare?” he teased her.
He picked up her hand and kissed her fingers, a warm and sensuous press of his lips. “I was hoping you’d think so. I’ve always wanted a chance for us to get to know one another, outside the family stuff. Remember when I took you to your senior prom?”
Remember? She would never forget. Her boyfriend had dumped her a week before and she’d felt the ground shifting beneath her, the shimmering sense of that old instability, like the slow loss of blood into hot bathwater. Unable to deal, she’d declared she wouldn’t go, despite her father’s blandishments. In a fit of anger, she threw the dress she’d bought onto the fire, to end the arguments once and for all.
And then Roman had taken the train down from Harvard that afternoon, bringing her a sequined dress that one of his girls told him was all the rage. Like a prince in a fairy tale, he’d rescued her.
“It was the best night of my life.” Christy swallowed some wine to clear the tightness in her throat. “I’ll never forget it. Though it must have been awful for you—having to hang out at a high-school prom with a teenage girl.”
“Not at all.” He stroked her hand thoughtfully. “You were so adorable. Besides, every girl should go to her prom.”
“How did my dad bribe you?”
Roman’s eyes flashed with a bit of surprise, then he shook his head ruefully. “It wasn’t really a bribe, but I was fighting with my dad then and he’d cut me off. The spending money came in handy. Don’t be mad.” He widened his brown eyes into a sad puppy look, then smiled when she laughed.
“I knew something like that had happened. I didn’t mind. I just felt kind of bad that you got stuck with me all the time, like a bratty little sister.”
“I’m not being bribed now,” he murmured. “And you are all gorgeous girl.”
His polished charisma filled the small restaurant like a rich cologne. A woman at a nearby table even snapped their picture surreptitiously with her phone, clearly thinking they might be celebrities.
The rest of the evening followed suit. Roman offered her plate after plate of exquisite food, as pleased with her responses as if he’d made everything himself, flirting shamelessly. The waiter seemed half in love with him, bringing out extra tidbits and blushing at Roman’s extravagant praise.
Christy dreamily watched the lights roll by as Roman drove them through the streets that wound through the adobe houses. She was a little drunk on wine, sated with excellent food, and warm from her dream date’s attentions. Roman suggested after-dinner drinks at a great little bar he knew, but Christy begged off, thinking of an early morning and that massive inventory.
The carved image of the whip and collar returned, along with that haunting tenor. Was it the theater ghost?
Stop thinking about it.
Roman pulled into the hotel drive just then and she was suddenly sorry she’d declined drinks. Now she’d be alone with her thoughts. She nearly said she’d changed her mind.
“Thanks,” she said instead. “I had a really good time.”
He undid his seat belt . . .
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