Page 34 of The Protege

I can’t say goodnight to her unless I’m on the other side of the room. I can’t say no to her when she asks me to play. I can never tell her how I feel and I can barely admit it to myself. I love Isabeau. I’m in love with a seventeen-year-old girl.

It gets harder and harder to be around her. I’m upsetting her with my coldness because she doesn’t understand why I’m avoiding her and I don’t know how to explain why I’m acting like this. I can’t explain it. There’s no one I can talk about it to, either, because I shrink with horror from admitting that I have tender feelings for a seventeen-year-old girl. If it gets out I’ll be the Woody fucking Allen of the classical music world. Questions will be asked. He’s been living with her all this time, since she was a child. He wouldn’t have…would he? To a child? But why did he take her in in the first place? Where did she even come from?

Worse, what would they say about Isabeau? To Isabeau?

I dream about her at night, the feel of her soft lips beneath mine, her warm body in my arms. I want her as much as I love her and this sends bolts of guilt through my body like an electric current.

All the while her eighteenth birthday approaches, the date on the horizon both tantalizing and alarming.

Chapter Thirteen

Laszlo

Now

Isabeau falls asleep somewhere over Eastern Europe and I watch her face in sweet repose. The powerful protective instinct I’ve felt for her since she was sixteen unfurls in my chest. Jealously protective. Not like the tender protectiveness I felt for her when she was eight. This is something reflexive. Territorial.

What has she been doing the last three years? Who has been getting her laughter? Her music? Her kisses? I’ll lose her amid the chaos of the tour over and over again so these moments when I have her by my side are precious. With a forefinger I smooth a lock of her hair back from her sleeping face. Her hand right hand is close to mine and I could take it, but that one light touch of her hair is all I’ll steal.

A flight attendant leans over us and hands me two bottles of water, whispering, “For your wife when she wakes up.” I take them silently, enjoying the mistake. Enjoying it far too much. Isabeau’s left hand is hidden beneath the blankets but I imagine a diamond ring sparkling on the third finger. A ring that I’ve given her.

“You’re all musical, aren’t you? Are you in a band?” the flight attendant asks, indicating the business class seats around us.

“An orchestra.”

She breaks into a smile. “How wonderful. Do you two play together at home?”

My chest feels tight, remembering ten-year-old Isabeau, her hair in a braid and wearing pink pajamas, giggling as we play Saint-Saëns; fourteen-year-old Isabeau practicing in the dusky pink dress I bought her so we can be sure it won’t get in her way when she performs; seventeen-year-old Isabeau, astonishingly beautiful and graceful, her eyes closed as she plays Rachmaninoff while I watch her hopelessly from behind the piano. For three long years the music room has been empty of Isabeau. Empty of happiness. Then Isabeau just a few days ago, clutching her bow in a white-knuckled hand and asking to be my protégé again.

“All the time,” I tell the attendant.

She smiles again, and moves on.

I don’t sleep the whole flight. I don’t want to miss a single second of Isabeau. I’m relearning her and she’s coming back to me as effortlessly as a favorite piece of music.

When she wakes I’m reading a newspaper and I pass her a bottle of water. She smiles and pushes the hair back from her face, blinking sleepily up at me. I’m pierced with longing for a place I’ve never been. A place where she and I always wake together, and a ring sparkles on her finger.

At the airport we separate. Singapore is sultry and hot and everyone peels off layers of clothing as we stand in the cab rank. There’s heavy cloud cover but it’s ninety degrees. Isabeau finds her way back to the other cellists and I keep one eye on her as I talk with Marcus about the rehearsal tonight.

Everyone is rested and changed and at Esplanade Concert Hall by seven forty-five and we rehearse on stage in the empty, vaulted space, all golden lighting and honey wood. People used to build cathedrals like this, spaces that go up and up toward the divine, song used for worship. Now we build concert halls, the music itself deified and conductors as priests. My eyes drop to Isabeau, her long tresses curled in the humidity and her legs bare beneath her cotton dress. I want to kiss a benediction onto her mouth. Beautifully played, my child.

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