Page 31 of The Protege

His hand strokes down the creamy paper and I watch the path of his fingers, remembering my fantasy last night. Hayley said the dynamic between us is one of dominance and submission. What would Laszlo do if I submitted just a little bit more?

I let my gratitude and deference fill my voice, to see what effect it has on him. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

His lips part, just for a second. Then his face clears. “Are you all right at Miss Chiswell’s? Are you sleeping well? It’s not uncomfortable or noisy, is it?”

I’m still reveling in the effect I have on him—I have an effect on him, and it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen from him before—and it takes me a second to catch up with what he’s saying. “Oh, yes, it’s fine thanks.”

Could I make him look at me like that again? What does he like about being called sir, exactly?

He closes the notebook and folds it in his arms across his chest. “Your room at our home is still your room, Isabeau. Always.”

Our home. Longing for that house fills me. The large, airy rooms. The sound of music cascading down the stairs. The feel of Laszlo all around me. I want to ask if I can go with him now, but this foot of space between us is not only a good idea because of our working relationship, but because of everything that happened before. We haven’t talked about that night and I don’t think I’m strong enough to be in those rooms with all those painful memories.

Fumbling for the door I say goodbye, and he watches me go.

That night I pack my meager belongings, which are eighty per cent black performance clothes, set my alarm for five am and get into bed. Our flight to Singapore is at eight twenty-five. It takes me a long time to fall asleep and then my alarm is going off what feels like two minutes later.

I make a cup of tea and drink it in the shower, brush my hair and teeth and swipe some mascara over my lashes. The flight time is thirteen hours and airplanes are cold so I wear a pair of tight, stretchy trousers, lace-up knee boots and an oversize sweater, and throw a scarf into my hand luggage. I left my cello at the Mayhew with all the other instruments to be shipped so I feel oddly empty-handed when I get into a cab downstairs with only a small suitcase and a cabin bag.

I see Laszlo at the gate, dressed in jeans and a dark sweater, looking comfortable and warm. I always liked him in winter best. I love the soft wool sweaters he wears and heavy dark coats, his long hair brushing his collar. His hard body beneath all that warm fabric. He nods at me across the sea of orchestra people and gives me the tiniest of smiles. I feel wistful, wondering how we’re going to be able to spend any time alone together with this busy schedule of travel, rehearsals and performances.

I sit with my fellow string sections as we wait for our flight to be called and listen to them chat. I can’t see anyone from the brass or percussion sections so I guess they must be on a different flight.

One of the viola players strikes up a conversation with me. “Is this your first time playing with an orchestra of this level?”

I recognize her from rehearsal, the woman who was looking at me with an unpleasant expression on her face. She seems friendly enough now, though. “Yes, professionally. Though funnily enough I played with this orchestra when I was fourteen at the—”

“Oh, I remember. Little Isabeau, the conductor’s ward. Landed on your feet, haven’t you? Second cello.” She’s still smiling, but suddenly it’s not a very nice smile.

“Uh, yes, I suppose so?” I feel my face flush and I wish she’d go away. The cello section has been so welcoming to me and I didn’t think I was going to have to deal with any comments about my age and inexperience. I know this is a big step up for someone as young as I am but it’s also temporary.

And I’m a good cello player. Confused; uninspired, perhaps; but technically good at least. I hope.

“But of course,” she adds with a forced laugh, “you were always going to land on your feet, being Mr. Valmary’s ward.”

Boarding is announced and the woman turns away, but the damage is done. I can’t look at anyone else as I carry my cabin bag onto the plane in silence. Maybe she said what everyone is thinking. Maybe she spoke the truth.

The tour company has sprung for business class seats and the whole front part of the Airbus must be filled with musicians. I find my seat, 7B, and I’m so sunk in unhappy thoughts that it takes me a moment to realize that Laszlo is sitting in 7A.