Page 4 of The Protege

They’re both still looking at me, expectant, so I reach for the first phrase to hand. “My assistant will call you.”

Marcus starts to say something but I go back to my office, close the door behind me and rest my back against it. I picture the way Isabeau’s hair fell across her shoulders as she played just now, thick and soft and beautiful. I remember how it felt running through my fingers that night. The memory comes back as clear as a single note from a Stradivarius violin. How she felt in my arms at last. My perfect, untouchable girl, finally mine.

A knock on my door startles me out of my reverie. Fuck. Isabeau.

But when I open my door I see, not Isabeau, but a smiling man in his forties holding a cello case. He beams at me. “Sorry I’m late. Roger Somers, here to audition.”

Somers. I remember now, he was suggested by our third violin as a very good cellist. I saw him play in Oxford two years ago. The sensible choice. The right choice for the tour.

But when I imagine standing at the front of the orchestra and turning to the string section I don’t see this man looking back at me. I see Isabeau.

I want Isabeau.

“The place has been filled. Thank you for coming.” I shut my office door in Somers’ startled face, take out my phone and call my PA. “In thirty minutes’ time call Isabeau Laurent. Tell her I want to see her tomorrow. At my house. No, she has the address. I’ll forward you her number.”

I end the call, send the contact information and close my eyes, certain that I’ve just made a huge mistake. Isabeau in my orchestra. Isabeau in my life again. Marcus’ confusion about what she is to me, my protégé, my former protégé, something else entirely, is my confusion.

When she was a child it was so easy. I was her mentor, her guardian, her safety and her home. But then she grew older and things changed, so slowly that I didn’t even realize what was happening.

I look at my phone and watch the minutes tick by. Half an hour later the email comes through from my assistant confirming my meeting with Isabeau at the house tomorrow morning. It’s done. I’ll be alone with her, just Isabeau, and all the things that have been left unsaid since the night she turned eighteen. I rest my head against the door and close my eyes, my mind turning back to that wintry day thirteen years ago. The first time I ever saw her.

Chapter Three

Laszlo

Then

The sound of the cello makes me stop dead in the street. A single, bright note strung out on the air with a purity that belies the smoggy London day. I look around for the busker. The sound is too clean for an amateur; the musician will be a professional who’s come out on the street to play and pass an hour in the fresh, cold air. Perhaps they need work and I can persuade them to join my ensemble. I’m in need of a cellist for my new orchestra. I smile to myself, thinking of the newsprint tucked into my music case: laszlo valmary, 25, youngest ever conductor appointed to the royal london symphony. The piece is riddled with clichés about new blood stirring things up and the ruffled feathers of the old guard. “I’ll not call that upstart maestro,” says Rickard Andersson, former cellist who quit the orchestra in protest yesterday after a forty-one year tenure.

Let them be ruffled. I’ve arrived.

The cello plays on and I recognize the piece. Reverie by Sibelius, played with simplicity and skill. But where is the musician? I turn on the spot, trying to find them. And then I do, outside a coffee shop. Or rather I find the sound and my eyes have to drop three feet to find the cellist because she’s a child. Her small fingers ply the strings, carving the bow across an instrument that’s so tall she has to play it standing up like a double bass. I’m mesmerized by the sound she’s making and I want to grab passers-by and make them listen until they understand what they’re witnessing. Raw, natural talent. A child’s simplistic style, yes, and she seems to have developed a few bad habits in the way she holds her bow, but these things are easily corrected. As she grows she could get much, much better. She could be world class.

I have places I need to be but I can’t leave her. Beyond all musical considerations, why is a girl of seven or eight standing on a busy London street playing for money? It’s not safe. She’s so small that anyone could snatch her up and disappear with her, and that instrument looks like it could be tempting to a thief with a knowledgeable eye.

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