Hannah stared at today’s last entry on her calendar. “Hmmm, no canceling that one, I guess,” she muttered.
Her assistant, Suzy, poked her head around the door. “Sorry, what did you say?”
Hannah closed her laptop. “Nothing. Just forgot I have that dinner with the opera singer tonight.”
Hannah hadn’t actually forgotten, of course. She had been moping about the appointment ever since it had shown up in her calendar. She had studied Mildred North’s biography, just like her mother had wanted.
Her main takeaway was that she had absolutely nothing in common with the woman. She didn’t understand half of the words in the résumé, to be honest. What on earth was she supposed to tell Miss North?
“Hey, Suzy?” Hannah asked.
She usually kept her door open and her assistant immediately walked back into the office.
“Do you know anything about opera?”
Suzy’s lips parted. “Ehm, no. I thought you saw a lot of it when you were a kid?”
“Yeah, I did. But I didn’t really pay attention, you know? I was a kid!”
Suzy smirked. “Of course you didn’t. You hate everything that is fancy. Except for our chocolates and whiskey, that is.”
She winked and walked back to her own space just outside the office.
Hannah drummed her fingers on the desk. “Shit, I need some talking points,” she thought.
There was no way in hell Hannah was going to ask her mother for help. She didn’t want to get another lecture. She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost 5PM.
She sat up. “Hey Suzy, can you connect me to Charlotte?”
“Sure thing,” Suzy replied from the other room.
Hannah stared at the phone, waiting for the light to start blinking. She could hear Suzy greet Charlotte, then shout “Line 1!”
Hannah picked up the receiver and pressed 1. “Hello Charlotte, how are you?”
“Miss Emsworth! What a delight to hear from you!”
Hannah smiled. Charlotte was always so formal. Her mother expected no less from her personal assistant.
“Thank you. It’s lovely to talk to you too, Charlotte,” she replied. “How are the preparations for my mother’s departure going?”
“Oh, just fine. Everything is on schedule.” Charlotte sighed. “We’ll have to say goodbye soon!”
Hannah nodded. Lucile had graciously offered the assistant a new position at the foundation and Charlotte had accepted. It made her the perfect person to ask for help tonight.
“Yes, time has flown by,” Hannah said slowly. She switched the receiver to her other ear. “Charlotte, I was wondering if there’s anything I should take into consideration tonight?”
Charlotte was quiet for a bit. “For your meeting with Miss North?” she finally asked.
“Yes, her biography was … “ Hannah stopped and tried to find a synonym for useless.
Her mother’s assistant was used to reading between the lines. She had worked for their family for over fifteen years after all.
“Would you like me to send you a list of appropriate discussion topics?” Charlotte suggested.
Hannah raised a finger in a Eureka moment. “Aha, yes! That would be great! It should make this first meeting a lot easier. Thank you,” she gushed.
“Ok, I’ll send it over in thirty minutes or so.”
“Perfect,” Hannah said gratefully. She suddenly thought of something else. “Are we sending a car for Miss North?”
“Of course,” Charlotte replied.
“Good. Thank you. You’ve been a real help.”
Charlotte chuckled warmly. “My pleasure, Miss Emsworth.”
Hannah shook her head. “Charlotte, seriously, call me Hannah! Now that mother is leaving, we can forget about the formalities, no?”
Another brief silence on the other end of the line. “All in good time, Miss,” Charlotte said.
Hannah rolled her eyes, amused. “Okay, I look forward to your list. Have a great evening.”
“You too, Miss Emsworth. Good luck with your first meeting as a patron of the opera!”
Hannah quirked an eyebrow. Was Charlotte teasing her? She didn’t get a chance to ask about it. The line had already gone dead. She stared at the phone in her hand, confused.
After a moment, she forced herself to focus on her last to-do.
“Suzy?” Hannah asked.
“Have you heard from Patrick on the new store in Boston?”
Hannah opened a spreadsheet on her laptop. “Get him on the line for me, will you?”
Two hours later, standing in front of the restaurant, Hannah scrolled through the email Charlotte had sent her. The message contained a detailed briefing on the questions she should or could ask.
“Dinner with an opera singer for dummies,” Hannah thought with a smirk.
Charlotte’s last sentence was a bit weird, though.
“Have fun! Miss North seems like a fascinating young lady,” her mother’s assistant had written.
What on earth had gotten into Charlotte, Hannah wondered. She sighed and put her phone back in her blazer’s inner pocket. She walked up to the restaurant’s entrance.
Once inside, she was immediately approached by a slimy looking man in a three-piece suit. “Mrs. Emsworth!”
Hannah had no idea why the man knew her on sight. She didn’t remember meeting him before and she rarely dined here.
She smiled thinly. “It’s Miss,” she pointed out.
The man made a slight apologetic bow. “Apologies, Miss Emsworth.”
Hannah wanted to roll her eyes but stopped herself just in time. “Have we met before?”
He straightened and shook his head, his skin slightly blotchy. “No, Miss, I just recognized you from the pictures in the papers.”
Hannah arched an eyebrow. It wasn’t like she was in the news often. There had been that article in the New York Times recently about her promotion to CEO of Leroy Chocolates. Maybe that’s what he had seen. Plus, she was easy to recognize. Her hair was as coppery red as hair got.
“I’m here to meet with a Miss North,” she said coolly.
“Of course, Miss, she’s waiting for you,” he replied with another bow of his head. “I offered her a drink, but she refused,” he added.
Hannah took a peek into the busy dining room. He followed her gaze. “I’ve given you a secluded table, as requested,” he whispered conspiratorially.
Hannah’s eyes snapped back to him. “I’m sorry?”
“Your staff asked for a quiet table, Miss.”
Hannah closed her eyes. She couldn’t believe this. Why would her mother and Charlotte do this to her? This evening almost seemed like a date now, for God’s sake. Except that she doubted many opera divas were openly gay.
“Everything okay, Miss Emsworth?” the host asked.
Hannah smiled reluctantly. “Sure, please show me to Miss North.”
“Of course!” He motioned for her to follow and spun on his heel.
Hannah noticed every single table was occupied. She saw several familiar faces and even got a few nods. She quickly averted her eyes when she spotted an acquaintance she really did not want to talk to right now. Or ever. Maybe a secluded table wasn’t that bad after all.
The host walked all the way to the back of the busy room. There were a few tables hidden, in part, behind a low wall with fresh flower arrangements on top. Hannah stepped into the calmer area and finally saw Miss North, who was hastily getting up from her chair.
Hannah couldn’t help but study her company’s outfit. The opera singer was wearing a very classy, black dress with silver and diamond accessories. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into an elegant, loose braid.
Hannah was a bit underdressed compared to her guest for the evening, she quickly realized. She hadn’t bothered changing out of her dark grey business suit. Her only accessory was her smartwatch.
She gave the host a curt nod to signal he was no longer needed. He hesitated for a moment, glancing at their chairs, but then hurried away.
Hannah stretched out her hand. “Miss North, it’s so nice to meet you at last.”
Her dinner companion took her hand, looking confused.
Hannah gave a quick, polite squeeze and then gestured for Miss North to sit down. The woman remained standing, however, with her brown eyes fixed on Hannah.
“Ehm, you are Miss North, right?” Hannah asked, uncomfortable.
“Yes! Of course, I’m sorry,” Miss North stammered. She finally sat down.
Hannah was already feeling too hot in her blazer. She took it off and hung it over the back of the chair. She unbuttoned the sleeves of her white silk blouse so she could roll them up and sat down.
Miss North glanced at the empty glasses on the table.
“Do you want some water?” Hannah asked.
“Yes, that would be wonderful,” her guest croaked.
Hannah frowned. “Okay, let me just …” She turned to look for a waiter and waved. A man in a black suit quickly rushed over to the table.
“I’m sorry if you’ve been waiting too long, ma’am. I …,” he apologized.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Hannah interrupted him. “Can we just get some water straightaway?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
The waiter hurried towards the kitchen doors.
Hannah smiled at Miss North. “It shouldn’t take long.”
The singer nodded gratefully. Hannah was unsure of what to do or say. She had expected to meet an overwhelming personality with a dazzling Broadway smile. Instead, there was a shy and confused looking woman sitting across the table.
Hannah suddenly wondered if something was wrong with her appearance. Did she have something on her face? Did her blouse have a huge stain? She looked down. The waiter arrived just as Hannah discreetly tried to feel if something was glued to her forehead.
“Thank you,” she told the waiter. “We need a bit more time before we can order.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
Hannah waited for Miss North to sip the water. Color was slowly returning to her face. The singer took another sip and then quietly put down the glass.
Hannah smiled again. “Feeling better?”
“I apologize,” Miss North said, “I was taken by surprise.”
Hannah rested her hands on the table. “How so?”
“I was under the impression I would be meeting with … your mother, I presume?” Miss North asked.
Hannah frowned, her mind racing. Her lips parted in realization. The poor woman thought she would be meeting with the esteemed Lucile Leroy and here Hannah was instead.
Okay, this was awkward. She picked up her own glass of water. “It must have been quite the disappointment to see me. That’s why she was so shocked,” flashed through Hannah’s mind. Her chest tightened.
“Ehm, yeah, my mother is moving back to Belgium next week. She asked me to take over her responsibilities,” she explained.
“Ah, I understand. Of course,” Miss North replied politely.
Then, silence again. Hannah was getting fed up with it. “So, Miss North, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me. I’m Hannah, by the way,” she said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Miss North’s cheeks turned red. “You are Miss Emsworth – Leroy? Mr and Mrs Emsworth’s daughter?” she asked.
Hannah nodded. “Yes. But please call me Hannah. I hate all that formal stuff.”
“Can I call you Mildred?”
The singer’s eyes widened. “Of course,” she stammered.
“You prefer Miss North?” Hannah quickly asked. Charlotte’s briefing email had not included instructions on formalities.
“No, Mildred is fine. Or Milly,” Miss North said and cleared her throat. “Most people call me Milly. My mother or grandmother say Mildred when they’re upset with me. Other than that, I only go by Mildred in my official biography.”
“Aha! She does talk and actually seems human once she does!” Hannah thought in triumph.
“Milly it is then,” she stated and grinned.
The waiter was back. It was almost as if he had guessed the ice had finally broken between the two women, and it was okay to bring over the menus. He each handed them the suggestions list and presented the wine menu to Hannah.
“Would you like something to drink first?” the waiter asked.
Hannah gave Milly a questioning look.
“No, thank you, water is fine,” Milly told the waiter.
Charlotte had warned Hannah opera singers rarely drink alcohol because of its effects on the vocal cords. It would have been nice to have Milly loosen up a little with a drink, though. No such luck. Luckily, Hannah did get to order some liquid courage.
She turned to the waiter and asked for a gin & tonic. “With some cucumber, please,” she added.
“I’ll be right back to take your order,” he said and ran off again.
Hannah studied Milly. She was running a finger over the menu as if she was considering the dishes one by one. Her face was serious, almost regal. Hannah finally saw the classical beauty that had been so evident in the picture Charlotte had sent her.
“If this woman wasn’t an opera singer, she could easily be an actor,” she thought. “Or a model!”
No, not a model. Hannah already had a sense Mildred North would consider it an insult if someone suggested to her she could make a living off of her looks. Milly was a woman who wanted to be valued for hard work and talent, Hannah guessed.
She recognized this because she too wanted to be judged on her performance instead of her looks, her family or her money. Maybe they had something in common after all.
That still didn’t make this dinner any more comfortable. Hannah hoped the gin & tonic would arrive soon. In the meantime, though, she would have to give small talk another go.
“Anything particular you fancy tonight?” she asked, gesturing at the menu.
Milly had reached the bottom of the list. “Yes, I think I’ll go for the sea fruit salad.”
Hannah tried to find the dish on the paper in front of her. “Ah, that does sound good. I think I’ll follow your lead”, she said.
Milly nodded politely.
“Not much effort on her part. Does this woman even want to be here?” Hannah wondered. She mentally listed the topics Charlotte had sent her and decided to give the most obvious one a try.
“So, how do you like the Young Artist Development Program so far?” she asked. She hoped she had gotten the name of the program right.
Milly sat up and brightened. “I had my first coaching sessions this week,” she said.
Hannah finally saw some of the fire she had expected in the diva’s eyes. “I understand these sessions are pretty special?”
Milly tilted her head, her eyes fixed on Hannah. Hannah pursed her lips and glanced around to see if the waiter was near. Where the hell was her drink?
“It is indeed extraordinary to be able to work with the most prestigious teachers and musicians in the world, yes,” Milly finally said, dryly.
Hannah nodded nervously. She tried to think of a relevant follow-up question. “Are you hoping to pick up a role in one of the shows?” she uttered.
She didn’t think she got it right, but at least it triggered a smile from Milly, albeit a thin one.
“Of course I’d like to be part of a … production,” the singer said. “But that rarely happens in the first year of the program. For now, I’m just lucky I can attend rehearsals.”
This sounded odd to Hannah. “You just go watch other people’s rehearsals?!”
Milly arched a perfectly maintained eyebrow. “I mostly listen. And these aren’t just any people, they’re the biggest talents working in my industry,” she snapped.
The waiter finally arrived with the gin & tonic. It took every ounce of Hannah’s self-control not to grab the drink from his platter. She had to wait until he had jotted down their orders.
Once he had left, Hannah was finally able to take a big gulp of the gin. When she glanced up, Milly was looking at her questioningly. The singer folded her elegant hands on the table and sucked in her lips.
Hannah sighed inwardly. It seemed like this was going to be a long and difficult evening no matter how hard she tried to be a good hostess.
“Would you mind if I ask you a relatively frank question?” Milly said, breaking the awkward silence.
Hannah perked up. This sounded promising. She would take frank over polite any day. “Of course not. Ask away!” she said and threw in her charming, confident smile.
“Were you involved in my selection for the grant?” Milly asked.
“Oh, shit. Busted”, Hannah thought. She shifted in her seat uncomfortably.
“No I wasn’t,” she admitted, “I don’t know that much about opera,” she babbled. “I don’t even like it, to be honest …”
Hannah quickly added, “But it’s very important to my mother. And it meant the world to my father, so …” She shrugged, feeling sweat prickle the back of her neck.
Milly’s shoulders slumped. Hannah had to say something to comfort the poor woman.
“I know you expected my mother to mentor you,” she said carefully.
She could see she was right because a blush started to creep up Milly’s neck.
“And I know I’m too young to be any kind of mentor, but I still want to honor my father’s legacy,” she continued hesitantly. “I’ll do everything within my power and understanding to support you and your career in singing.”
“Thank you,” Milly said very quietly.
They sat in silence until the waiter arrived with their salads. The dishes looked delicious. Hannah ordered a glass of white wine to go with her dinner. Milly stuck with water.
After two more uncomfortable minutes of silence, Hannah decided to get back into the arena. She was feeling a bit braver. No doubt the effect of the gin & tonic. The freshness of the cucumber still lingered in her mouth.
“So, got a relaxing Saturday planned tomorrow?” she asked.
Milly put down her fork and glanced up at Hannah. She lifted one shoulder.
“Not really. I have an extra session with my singing coach early in the morning. After that, I’m studying. I also have a workout scheduled in the evening.”
“Sunday then?” Hannah tried again.
Everyone took time off on Sunday right? Even Hannah did and she was one of the worst self-professed workaholics in town.
But Milly shook her head. “More studying and a long run.”
Hannah jumped on a topic she actually felt more comfortable with. “Ah, do your workouts keep you sane? They sure do that for me”, she said with a smile.
Milly wrinkled her nose. “Not really. I just have to keep in perfect shape as a singer.”
Hannah couldn’t stop her eyes from drifting over Milly’s, eh, shape. The singer had a feminine build with only the slightest suggestion of toned muscles in her arms. You would never guess she was a fitness freak.
Hannah couldn’t blame her. She wasn’t a Sporty Spice either. She dragged herself to her cross trainer every morning because her vanity demanded it. She’d been bluffing about how her workouts kept her sane.
She munched on a delicious piece of shrimp while she thought of what to say next. She hadn’t had much success so far with any of the suggestions on Charlotte’s list.
Maybe she should just give up, she decided. Eating in silence wasn’t that bad after all. It sure seemed a hell of a lot safer. Everything she had said, had only confused or insulted Mildred North.
“How often are we supposed to have these dinners?” she wondered. She made a mental note to ask Charlotte once this awful night was over.