Page 1 of The Protege

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.

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