Next to her, Raven felt enormous and dowdy, as she always felt when standing next to a thin and beautiful person. (She was forgetting that she’d recently undergone a tremendous physical transformation.)
“Can I carry your bags, Mrs. Emerson?”
She laughed. “Call me Julia. We have to be the same age.”
“I’m almost thirty,” Raven blurted out.
“I’ll be thirty in a couple of years. So please call me Julia. If you’d carry the diaper bag, I’d be grateful.”
She held Clare with one hand while Raven pulled the bag from her shoulder.
Raven was unprepared for the weight and nearly dropped it, but managed to keep it from hitting the floor at the last moment.
“I’m sorry. I should have warned you.” Julia made a move to help her, but Raven waved her off and lifted the item with both hands.
“Gabriel wants to be prepared for any emergency and so he stuffs things into it when I’m not looking. I need a stroller for Clare and a stroller for the diaper bag.” She laughed. “Actually, I need a stroller for myself. Traveling with a baby is more challenging than I thought.”
“Are you staying nearby?”
“Yes, at the Gallery Hotel Art.” Julia’s expression brightened. “We’re here for a week, then we’re going to Umbria. Clare’s godmother is with us.”
“That’s nice.” Raven didn’t really know what to say.
“But we’re really upset about the robbery,” Julia confided, holding Clare close to her body. “The illustrations are more than just artwork to us. They have sentimental value. When Dottor Vitali called to say they’d been stolen . . .”
Julia nuzzled her daughter, as if she were trying to hide her face.
“I’m so sorry,” Raven whispered.
“Gabriel is hoping they’ll be recovered, but I’m not sure how likely that is. I guess all we can do is pray.
“It’s possible the illustrations were stolen once before and that’s how they came to belong to the family who sold them to my husband.” Julia sighed. “I guess we’ll never know.”
Raven was curious about her remark, since it was a possibility that had not been disclosed in Dottor Vitali’s leaflet. She elected not to press the point.
“The police are doing all they can. I hope they find them.”
“I hope so, too. You sound American.” Julia looked at her with interest.
“I’m from New Hampshire. I lived in Florida so long I lost my accent.”
“I’m from Pennsylvania, but we live in Cambridge.” Julia grinned. “I don’t think I’ll ever sound as if I’m from Boston. What part of the gallery do you work in?”
“Restoration and conservation. I’m part of the team working on the Birth of Venus.”
Julia’s brown eyes lit up. “That’s one of my favorite paintings. I don’t suppose you let guests view the restoration? I promise not to get in the way.”
“I’m sure Dottor Vitali can arrange something. I’d be happy to show you what we’re doing but Professor Urbano is the one in charge. He worked on the restoration of Primavera under Umberto Baldini.”
“That’s another of my favorites. I’ve always loved Botticelli.” Julia’s tone was wistful. “That’s why we wanted to lend the illustrations. We wanted other people to enjoy them.”
Raven stopped, turning to face her. “Let me tell you how happy I was to be able to see them. I visited them almost every day. We were all so glad when you and your husband decided to extend the exhibit beyond a few months.”
“Thank you.” Julia’s smile faded. “I can’t help but think this is my fault. I persuaded Gabriel to let the gallery keep the illustrations while we were on leave with Clare. Now they’re gone.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“So am I.”
Raven regarded her curiously.
“You and Professor Emerson are both on leave? Are you a professor as well?”
“I’m a professor in training. I’m in the middle of a Ph.D. on Dante.”
“Where are you studying?”
Julia smiled. “Harvard. I’m still finishing coursework.”
“Professor Emerson is a Dante specialist, isn’t that right?”
“Yes. Clare’s godmother is a retired Dante specialist as well. Apparently, it takes three Dante specialists to look after one baby.”
Raven laughed, opening the door to the conference room. She gestured for Julia to enter before her, and she changed the sign on the door to indicate that a meeting was in progress.
“No one will bother you here. Do you need anything?” She placed the diaper bag on the long table that dominated the space.
Julia quickly sat down and began rummaging in the bag. She removed a large bottle of sparkling water.
“If you have a glass, that would be great. I try to drink a lot of water while I’m breastfeeding.” She removed her iPhone from her purse, placing it on the table in front of her. “If I need anything else, I’ll just call Gabriel.”
Raven retrieved a water glass from one of the cabinets on the far wall and handed it to Julia. She looked at the child, who had large blue eyes like her father and an abundance of fine, dark hair.
“How old is Clare?”
“She was born last September. She’s almost nine months.”
“She’s beautiful.” Raven touched the child’s head gently.
“Thank you. I think she looks like her daddy. But everyone says she has my mouth. Do you have children?”
“No.” Raven stiffened, looking from the child to her mother. “If you need anything, I’ll be in Dottor Vitali’s office.”
Julia poured water into a glass. “We’ll be fine.”
“I hope they find the illustrations.” Raven’s voice was quiet.
Julia looked up at her.
“I hope so, too. Losing them is much more than losing art.” Julia looked down at her daughter. “It’s like losing family.”
Raven nodded and exited the conference room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Mrs. Emerson was not what she had expected. She was younger and much nicer than many of the important patrons and donors who visited the gallery on occasion.
Raven felt sorry for her, recalling the expression of sadness she’d worn when talking about the loss of the artwork. It sounded as if the Emersons truly loved those objects. Now they’d lost them.