Page 15 of The Protege

He smiles at me and turns to the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, over the years it’s been my pleasure to introduce for you many world-class soloists at the Mayhew, and tonight is no exception. But this is the first time I’ve had the honor of presenting a soloist’s debut. Miss Isabeau Laurent is an award-winning cellist with the North London Youth Orchestra, a soloist of great talent, and my protégé.”

The applause erupts again and so do my nerves as we take our places, but when I look up and see Laszlo just a few feet away I feel better. Nothing bad can happen as long as he’s there.

Laszlo never speaks to musicians except his concertmaster while he’s on stage but he looks at me expectantly and I nod when I’m ready. Once the strings start and I play the first note everything falls away. I don’t see my mother again, but I feel her, and I’m playing for her.

When the piece ends and the last long note from my cello fades I find I have to open my eyes because at some point I’ve closed them, and the world comes rushing back in a storm of applause. All around me a sea of bows are tapping in unison, the string section’s version of clapping, and Laszlo has his hand out to help me up. We take bows, and then the two other soloists are there as well and there’s so much applause that I feel bewildered by it all. Laszlo’s looking closely at the first few rows, a smile on his face. Finally we’re able to get off stage and the soloists and the ensemble are congratulating me and telling me how well I played and I’m trying to say you too and thank you to everyone.

Finally it’s just Laszlo, looking pleased, his hair rumpled from pushing his fingers through it. “Isabeau, that was so beautiful you made some people cry.”

So that’s what he was looking at during the bows. “Did I make you cry?” I tease, because I’m elated now it’s over. I know I didn’t make him cry because I saw his face at the end and he was only smiling.

Laszlo puts his hand over his heart. “You made me cry in here. I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”

He hugs me, and his familiar sweet peppercorn scent envelops me. How long, I wonder, hugging him back fiercely, until he falls in love with me and asks me to marry him? It’s taking so long to grow up. I love him so much already.

Chapter Six

Isabeau

Now

I’m on Laszlo’s street ten minutes before the appointed time but I don’t go to the front door and knock. Not yet. Instead I stand by a garden wall a few doors down, stomping my feet in the cold.

This was my neighborhood for ten years and it’s more familiar to me than any other part of London. I was happy all the time here. Frustrated some days, yes, by school or by my fingers if they wouldn’t coax the sound I wanted from my cello. Some days I was sick, and some days I missed Laszlo if he had to go to away to perform. But those were only minor blips, and the thread of my days was always one of happiness.

Every day except that last one.

When I was younger it was so simple. I loved Laszlo, and once I’d grown up he’d fall in love with me, too. I never considered that he might not feel the same way about me. That he couldn’t feel the same. Other people seemed to assume that I thought of him as a father but to me he was my protector, teacher and friend, and the most important person in the world. We never told each other we loved each other but if I had I would have meant it in the romantic sense. That I was in love with him.

I don’t know if I still love him. I don’t know what he thinks about that night or what he thinks about me now. I do know why he wants to see me at the house: so he can ask me why I came to the Mayhew out of the blue and why I auditioned when I wasn’t there to audition. Why I asked for a place in the orchestra when I know nothing about the tour. I’ve lain awake most of the night thinking about how I will answer these questions. We may quarrel again like the night of my eighteenth birthday only this time the rift will be permanent. I’m frightened that I’ll lose Laszlo forever.

Yesterday I wanted to play for him so he’d understand how I feel. When I opened my eyes and saw that his fingers were moving to the piano part of Vocalise I felt a longing for him so great that it was almost unbearable. A longing to make music with him again. I could see from his normally so shuttered face that he missed that, too, and it was like a lance had impaled me through the chest. I miss his clever hands. The sound of his voice. Opening my eyes from a solo to see the warmth in his eyes.

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