Page 16 of The Protege

But this is not about what I miss. This is about what I need, and I need his help. I want to be a soloist but for that I need vision. Authenticity. Inspiration. My sense of who I am as a cellist has been devastated and I need Laszlo as my mentor again. To feel the peace and happiness that comes from his strong and subtle presence. His strictness and high expectations of me.

I’ve played in many ensembles over the last few years but no conductor makes me feel like Laszlo makes me feel. Safe. Happy. Protected. And other things, things that I barely understood before I left his house. Things that I was just starting to discover about myself.

During the three years away from Laszlo I learned about music, exploring unfamiliar styles of performing and playing. I discovered that there’s peace to be found in walking alone through the beautiful university grounds at Durham and hearing music float out of open windows and choral singing echoing from within the cathedral. I learned that going to bed with someone when your heart’s not in it is one of the loneliest experiences you can ever have.

I discovered that it’s unwise to look to anyone else for your happiness. I tried to find my own happiness, in all the ways, but the memory of Laszlo was everywhere. His voice, his direction unexpectedly filled my fantasies. Playing well and imagining that he was listening to me would make me slick and restless. Recalling the sound of his voice as he’d corrected something in my playing or told me I’d done well would, with the help of my fingers, bring me to orgasm. I knew some of this while I was living with him. That I was attracted to his authority, his confidence, and that pleasing him made me feel so very good in unexpected ways. But I didn’t know how much I craved that all the time until I lost him. I didn’t know then how important it was to my music.

I glance at my watch: three minutes to eleven. I’m not asking him to love me, touch me, take me to bed. What I want goes deeper than that. I have to speak it aloud for him because this is one thing that music won’t be able to tell him.

I want what only Laszlo can give me. I want to be his protégé again.

I check my watch again: one minute to eleven. I peel myself away from the wall and head toward his door. It’s time.

Chapter Seven

Laszlo

Now

I see Isabeau at the end of my street ten minutes before our appointed time, huddled close to a wall, the lower part of her face swathed in a thick knitted scarf. One gloved hand is holding her cello case and the other is wrapped around a shoulder bag that will be filled with sheet music. She’s shaking despite her heavy winter coat because her legs are clad only in tights and there are black court shoes on her feet. She’s dressed for the stage, not a freezing London street. Every now and then she glances at her wristwatch. At one minute to eleven she straightens and walks up the street. The bell rings at exactly eleven.

When I open the door I see from her pale, tight face that she’s nervous. No. Terrified. Of me? It was the same when I said her name yesterday and she turned toward me, and I hate it because she’s never been afraid of me. I want to reach out to her, reassure her, but there’s too much distance between us even though she’s only two feet away.

Her chin lifts and she says in a clear voice, “Hello, Laszlo.”

I take her up to the studio where she gets out her cello and begins to tune it. We should talk, but it’s wonderful seeing her in this space again, sitting behind her cello. Her bloodless fingers slip on the strings and I step forward automatically and take her small hand between mine, as I’ve done in the past. Warming her fingers. She looks up at me with those clear green eyes that have haunted me since that night.

Tell her you’re sorry. For everything. Even the things she doesn’t know about.

I clear my throat and release her. “Bach’s Sixth. Do you have the sheet music?” She doesn’t so I find the cello part for her and place it on the music stand.

She plays excellently. Her technique, her pace. This is one of the symphonies I want the ensemble to perform on tour and there’s not much time to rehearse so it’s important everyone can play it. “The second movement—”

Isabeau cuts across me without raising her voice. “Aren’t you going to tell me how that was?”

I feel a lurch and the room goes out of focus.

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