Page 27 of The Protege

I smile at her, wanting to put her at her ease. However I’m feeling tonight it’s not her I’m irritated with. “What is it, sweetheart?”

“Laszlo, Ryan has asked if I can go with him to a concert on Monday night.”

My hands still on my sheet music. As she’s sixteen I suppose I should have expected this. Over the years she’s grown taller, more slender in places, filled out in others. There’s still a coltish uncertainty about her limbs and the way she holds herself sometimes but even that will disappear in a year or so. Her childhood prettiness has turned into loveliness. My ward is beautiful, and I know I’m not the only one who sees it.

I’m going to have to starting dealing with Isabeau dating. My irritation expands. I don’t want dozens of spotted youths calling at the house to take Isabeau out and worrying every minute that she’s gone. I swallow down the outright refusal that’s clamoring to get out of my mouth, and think, What concert? Mentally running through next week’s performances and soirees I can’t come up with a single event that would be worth Isabeau’s time. Besides, Monday nights have always been our night. Usually neither of us have to perform. I cook. She does her homework at the kitchen bench and after we’ve eaten we play something together. I like it. I look forward to it.

“There aren’t any concerts on Monday night.”

Isabeau smiles and tugs on her ponytail. “Not that sort of concert, silly. A band. Electro pop or something.”

She’s expecting me to tweak her nose and tell her not to be cheeky as I usually do when she teases me, but I’m not in the mood. A band. A dark venue. Dancing. Ryan’s arms around her to protect her from the press of sweaty bodies, but really so he can feel her up. A thick, ugly sensation spreads through my chest. She’s too young for that. She’s too…mine.

She’s too young for that, I correct myself quickly. I’m just being protective. It’s what I do. But I feel the same angry, resentful sensation that I get when I catch men looking at her in the street. That they’re coveting what’s mine. If anyone’s going to put his arms around Isabeau to protect her it’s going to be me. Knowing that I can’t and shouldn’t want to doesn’t seem to change that. If I was actually her father it wouldn’t be so complicated. I wouldn’t feel like men were encroaching on my territory and I could just let her go.

But I don’t want to let her go, and certainly not to a dark, sweaty pop concert with fucking Ryan or anyone else.

I clear my throat, sorting through the sheet music as if I’m looking for something. “I see. Do you think you have time for dates, what with orchestra rehearsals, practice and schoolwork?”

“No.”

I look up at her in surprise. I was expecting an argument, pleading, but she’s regarding me with perfect calmness.

“You’re right, Laszlo. I’ll tell him that I’m too busy.”

She turns away but I reach out and grasp her hand, tugging her back. I smile at her, puzzled and pleased at the same time. “You don’t want to go?”

She squeezes my hand and leans close to whisper, “Not really, Laszlo. I’ve already told Ryan no three times saying that you wouldn’t agree, but he insisted I ask you. Now I can just tell him you don’t want me to go and he won’t dare ask me again. Please keep being so strict and scary. Then I won’t have to date anyone at all.”

Her cool fingers slip from mine and I watch her go back to Ryan and tell him that her strict, scary guardian has told her she can’t go. The boy’s face flushes with annoyance and I make sure I’m busy with my music case when he glances in my direction. It’s petty and it’s beneath me but I’m fiercely pleased by the whole exchange. Isabeau doesn’t want to go on a date with Ryan. Isabeau doesn’t want to date anyone at all.

She picks up her cello case and comes toward me, leaving a disappointed Ryan in her wake. I take her instrument from her, feeling in a better mood than I have all night. As we walk through Leicester Square on our way to the Tube I watch the faces of the men we pass, seeing how their covetous eyes roam over Isabeau. When their gaze falls on me and the hostile expression in my eyes they look quickly away. She has no idea, talking to me of the evening’s practice. I smile down at her, liking her where she is. Liking her close to me, being able to keep her safe even as I feel a creeping sense of guilt that I shouldn’t like it quite so much.

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