Read the first two chapters of THE PROTÉGÉ

Chapter One

Isabeau

Now

I came to say sorry, but it didn’t work out that way.

“A cellist?” says the woman with the clipboard, looking between me and my instrument case as if we’ve ruined her day. “I’ve only got one cellist on my list and his name is Roger Somers. Who are you? Is Mr. Valmary expecting you?”

My heart bangs like a timpani drum against my ribs hearing his name. Laszlo Valmary, conductor and musical director of the Royal London Symphony Orchestra and my former guardian and mentor. I’ve come straight from the train, luggage and all, to face the man I haven’t spoken to in three years. Now that I’m in London again I feel him on every street I walk down, in every strain of music I hear, in the very air I breathe. But he’s not expecting me and I wasn’t expecting this, whatever this is that’s happening today.

The woman cuts across what I was going to say. “Never mind. The flautist hasn’t turned up so the schedule’s a mess anyway. Go through and wait.” She gives her clipboard a pained look and marches away, and I’m left in the alcove by the stalls as musicians file past me. I draw back into the shadows letting my thick red hair fall forward, not wanting to be recognized.

The Mayhew Concert Hall in the West End is a huge, stately venue of plush velvet and gold scrollwork. An enormous crystal chandelier hangs overhead and the auditorium is lit by dozens of sconces lining the balconies. The seating goes up and up to the dizzying nosebleed sections where people crowd together for five pounds a head for a glimpse of the orchestra on stage. For those paying upwards of three hundred pounds a ticket for a stalls seat every string of the violins is visible, the notes on the sheet music, the precise movements of Laszlo’s large, skilled hands as he conducts. It’s a more intimate experience down in the stalls but up in the gods the music is just the same. The music soars.

I breathe in the memory of remembered notes. I’ve missed this place.

At this time of day on a Thursday I expected to find Laszlo in his office but rehearsals seem to have gone on longer than usual. No, not rehearsals. Auditions by the looks of things. If Laszlo’s lost orchestra members then he’ll be impatient, distracted. This isn’t the time for me to untangle my feelings for him or ask for his help. I should go, but curiosity holds me in place. What has happened? Has a swathe of the ensemble walked out again? He’s not the “callow youth” that he was accused of being thirteen years ago when he took over the orchestra. He’s a man of thirty-eight and the darling of the British classical music scene. The best musicians in the country clamor to be part of his ensemble.

I listen to threads of conversations going on around me and try to discover what has happened to the orchestra. Then I tell myself to focus and plan what I’m going to say to Laszlo; how I’m going to have to tell him that after all his training and effort I’ve ruined my musical career before it’s even begun.

“Isabeau.”

My hand convulsively grips my cello case. I turn and see him standing by the rows of red velvet seats, the man who took me from my home when I was eight years old. Who taught me almost everything I know about music. About life. The man I’ve spent the last three years in turmoil over. Missing him like crazy. Being angry with him. Wanting him.

I don’t need to get close to know that he’ll smell like sweet peppercorns and smoky Arabian nights. He looks good, but then he always looks good, tall and lean and smartly dressed in a dark shirt and suit. A sultry mouth and hawkish nose, and not quite enough facial hair to call it a beard but just enough to scratch your nails through and feel the lovely rasping of the bristles. Hazel eyes that always seem to be moments away from warm pleasure or flashing emotion, and fine, sandy brown hair that’s too long as usual, growing down to his collar. I used to tease him about that, telling him that he has conductor’s hair, the careless mane that maestros grow so they can toss it about in passion to the music and look romantic in journalists’ black and white photographs. I was the only one who could tease him. One of the few who could make him smile.

Laszlo steps forward, and my heart leaps because I think he’s going to fold me in his arms and hold me close like he used to do. But when he reaches for me his hand closes around my upper arm, cold and hard, and he leads me out of the auditorium and along a corridor without a word. Hopeless tears prickle in my eyes. He’s still ashamed of me. I look up at the ceiling and breathe in sharply, a trick that a makeup artist once taught me before a solo student performance, the first one of my career that Laszlo wouldn’t be watching. Suck those tears right back in, pet. Don’t go ruining your face.

He takes us into to his office, closes the door behind us and then just stands there with his back to me, one hand braced against the door. A clock ticks on the wall and I count the seconds in three-four time, a minuet clashing with the pounding of my heart.

I should speak first but I don’t know how to unravel the apology that’s become snarled on my tongue. The last three years without him have been hell and losing him was like cutting off a limb. No, worse, like taking a sledgehammer to my cello. My world shattered the night of my eighteenth birthday and I can see that he still hasn’t forgiven me for what I did. I hid the broken pieces of my heart deep down where no one would ever find them and I don’t know what he’ll do with them if I show them to him now.

His hand slides down the wood and he turns to me. “Isabeau—”

The door opens and a man puts his head in. I recognize him. Marcus Sabol, Laszlo’s first violin and concertmaster. “Laszlo, that oboist… Oh. Hello.” Marcus comes to a halt when he sees me. He’s a stringy man in his late fifties with a shock of white hair and the energy and bubbliness of a much younger man. We never met as he joined the orchestra after I went to university in Durham, but I’ve seen him play. He and Laszlo are perfect together, working in tandem to get the most out of the ensemble.

Marcus’ eyes travel from my face to my cello case and back again. “You’re Isabeau Laurent. I saw you play in Cambridge last year. Absolutely phenomenal. Are you coming with us?”

He sees my blank face and smiles. “Laszlo didn’t even tell you why you’re here, did he, he just called his protégé back from university. Former protégé? Anyway, we’re trying to put this last-minute fiasco together with half a damn orchestra. Thank god you’re here.”

Laszlo’s expression doesn’t change but I see how his jaw clenches. Marcus has just put him in a difficult position. The first violin is the most important person in the orchestra after the conductor and he gets a say in the principal players. I should correct Marcus and come back another time. It’s not just the graceful thing to do, it’s the only thing to do if I want to put our past behind us and ask for Laszlo’s help.

The atmosphere is as tight as a bow string and Marcus’ smile dims. “You are here to audition, aren’t you?”

There are so many things I want to say to Laszlo. Most importantly that I’m sorry, but also that the happiest time of my life was when I was his protégé. That my musical career has stalled and I don’t know what to do about it. That when I play the music doesn’t even sound like me anymore.

That I need him in ways he doesn’t understand and I’m only just beginning to.

I’ve never been good at saying what I feel but Laszlo always knew how I felt when I played my cello. It’s not everything I want to say but it’s a start, and if he’s leaving for a tour then I need to say it now.

I lift my chin and look Laszlo in the eye. “Yes. I’m here to audition.”

 


 

Chapter Two

 Laszlo

Now

She’s even more beautiful than I remember. Cheekbones finer, features more delicate. The years apart haven’t changed how I feel about her, but nothing could change that. Not my regret, my pain, my guilt. My anger. Even when I’ve been mad as hell I’ve still wanted her, the one woman in the world I can’t have.

I watch her smiling at Marcus as he takes her coat and suitcase so she can unpack her cello, her curtain of red hair falling in front of her face. She used to wear it up at home and while she was practicing, but she always, always wore it down while she was performing, the thick tresses spilling over her shoulders. I want to step forward and put a stop this but the thought of seeing her like that again, sitting at her cello and playing for me, holds me rooted to the spot. She and Marcus move past me out of the office, deep in conversation about the best audition piece for her. I listen to their voices as they fade away down the corridor.

What would I have said to her if Marcus hadn’t come in? I don’t even know where to start with all the things I want to say to her. I’ve never forgotten how things ended between us and I regret how I lost her. She left a hole in my world and my heart that I’ve never been able to fill. I don’t even know if she wants these truths from me. In three years she never tried to contact me.

And now she’s here.

The keening notes of her cello reach my ears. They’ve started without me. What is she playing, Bach?

No. It’s our piece. She’s playing our piece.

I picture her sitting with her mother’s cello between her knees as she draws the slender bow across the strings. The long column of her neck bent just so, her eyes drifting closed as she plays. Before I know it my feet are leading me out to the auditorium toward her. I need to see her for myself.

She’s seated at the front of the empty stage. The sleeves of her lightweight sweater are pushed back past her elbows and she’s wearing calf-length boots with a green plaid skirt. She definitely didn’t come here to audition. Isabeau would never dream of auditioning in anything but black. She’s playing Vocalise by Rachmaninoff arranged for cello and piano, though the piano to the right is standing silent and she’s playing alone. There are dozens of pieces for those two instruments together but this one was ours. The last year she lived with me we played it often, on our quiet Monday nights or tired Sunday afternoons, after the work was done, the practice finished and the rehearsals over. The steady and questing piano phrases. The insistent, plaintive cello, asking and leading before drawing back again. Not for an audience or applause. Something just for the two of us.

And she’s playing it by herself.

She opens her eyes and fixes her gaze on mine. Unbidden, the fingers of my right hand are tapping out the piano part against my leg and before I can stop myself she sees, and her playing falters. Just for a split second, but I hear it. I hear other things as well. The cello is like a human voice and the music she’s making is filled with sorrow and regret, as clear as if she’s speaking the words aloud to me.

I’m sorry, Laszlo.

I don’t want her apologies. There’s nothing for her to be sorry for because I’m the one who let her down. For ten years she looked to me for protection and safety and when she needed me most I betrayed her.

Isabeau reaches the end of the piece and instead of tapering slowly into silence she stops abruptly and leans back from her cello as if she can’t bear it anymore. Her eyes are full of hurt. I know how much it hurts because I feel it too.

Marcus turns to me with an appraising look. He’s smiling, waiting for me to tell Isabeau that she’s perfect, that she’s hired. He doesn’t understand what was said between us through the music. He only heard one of the most proficient cellists in the country.

“Well, Laszlo?” he asks.

Well, nothing. The point wasn’t for her to audition, the point was for her to show me how she feels. I wish Marcus and the Mayhew and everything else would just disappear so I could tell Isabeau that she has nothing to be sorry for.

I move forward and put my hand on the stage at her feet and look up into her eyes. “Thank you, Miss Laurent.”

I’m not being cold, addressing her like that. It’s part of the etiquette of the concert hall. Later when we’re alone I can call her Isabeau, and we can talk. I still have her number and I’ll text her when I get back to my office and ask her to wait and give me a chance to explain.

I turn to go but she calls out, stopping me. “Mr. Valmary.”

She’s standing, one hand wrapped around the neck of her cello. There’s a new look in her eyes, something bright and determined.

“Do I get the place?”

I stare at her, not understanding. Marcus is looking at me with an expectant smile. I know what he’s thinking. I’d be crazy to refuse a cellist like Isabeau, especially when we need her so badly.

Isabeau, part of my orchestra again. Turning toward the string section and seeing her just a few feet away, looking back at me. Feeling that exquisite happiness that only comes from knowing she’s close to me.

But Isabeau can’t come on tour with us. Spending every day and night together for the next five weeks is out of the question with the way things ended between us. This tour is meant to be an escape for me, a way to get out of the funk and uncertainty that has invaded my life so I can consider what I want next. Is the answer Europe? Is it New York? Somewhere further afield? Where is up, what is onwards when you have achieved your lofty goals by the age of thirty-eight? That’s the whole reason I said yes to this “fiasco”, as Marcus called it, with parts of the orchestra on leave. To stretch myself and help clarify things. But I won’t be able to think straight with Isabeau close to me.

They’re both still looking at me, expectant, so I reach for the first phrase to hand. “My assistant will call you.”

Marcus starts to say something but I go back to my office, close the door behind me and rest my back against it. I picture the way Isabeau’s hair fell across her shoulders as she played just now, thick and soft and beautiful. I remember how it felt running through my fingers that night. The memory comes back as clear as a single note from a Stradivarius violin. How she felt in my arms at last. My perfect, untouchable girl, finally mine.

A knock on my door startles me out of my reverie. Fuck. Isabeau.

But when I open my door I see, not Isabeau, but a smiling man in his forties holding a cello case. He beams at me. “Sorry I’m late. Roger Somers, here to audition.”

Somers. I remember now, he was suggested by our third violin as a very good cellist. I saw him play in Oxford two years ago. The sensible choice. The right choice for the tour.

But when I imagine standing at the front of the orchestra and turning to the string section I don’t see this man looking back at me. I see Isabeau.

I want Isabeau.

“The place has been filled. Thank you for coming.” I shut my office door in Somers’ startled face, take out my phone and call my PA. “In thirty minutes’ time call Isabeau Laurent. Tell her I want to see her tomorrow. At my house. No, she has the address. I’ll forward you her number.”

I end the call, send the contact information and close my eyes, certain that I’ve just made a huge mistake. Isabeau in my orchestra. Isabeau in my life again. Marcus’ confusion about what she is to me, my protégé, my former protégé, something else entirely, is my confusion.

When she was a child it was so easy. I was her mentor, her guardian, her safety and her home. But then she grew older and things changed, so slowly that I didn’t even realize what was happening.

I look at my phone and watch the minutes tick by. Half an hour later the email comes through from my assistant confirming my meeting with Isabeau at the house tomorrow morning. It’s done. I’ll be alone with her, just Isabeau, and all the things that have been left unsaid since the night she turned eighteen. I rest my head against the door and close my eyes, my mind turning back to that wintry day thirteen years ago. The first time I ever saw her.

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