Page 3 of The Protege

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.