Page 45 of The Protege

I pull myself reluctantly out of my daydream. “Yes. All right, Laszlo. And thank you for scheduling the performance on my eighteenth birthday, it’s the most wonderful present.”

A smile skirts his lips. “The dates happened to match up, that’s all.”

I can’t resist a little teasing and bat my lashes at him. “So it’s not because I’m your favorite?”

He opens a tin of coconut cream and doesn’t look up. “Now, Miss Laurent, you know I don’t have favorites.”

“Yes, maestro. Can we play Vocalise after we eat?”

There’s a millisecond hesitation and then he gives me that quick, not-quite smile again. “Of course, sweetheart. We can play whatever you like.”

A few weeks later Laszlo shows me the printed program and halfway down I see,

The Swan, Saint-Saëns

Isabeau Laurent, cello; strings

He doesn’t say it but I see the unsaid words in his hazel eyes. That this is the way it has to be. That piece should be played properly, beautifully, and for that I needed the orchestra behind me. He’s the conductor. I’m the musician. But I still feel heartsick at the thought that it could be the last time I’ll ever be on stage with him.

It won’t be. I won’t let it be.

Further down the program, right at the bottom, is simply, Be/ethoven. It looks like a typo but it’s actually a visual pun that we’re counting on no one getting. I grin. I can’t wait to see the audiences’ faces when we get to the finale.

On the morning of my eighteenth birthday Laszlo puts a flat red velvet box next to my plate of pancakes and bacon and kisses my cheek, the bristles of his beard rasping gently against my skin.

“Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

I stroke the box with my fingers, enjoy the soft feel of the velvet. I don’t even care what’s inside. It’s a present from Laszlo so I know I’ll always treasure it.

He sits down opposite me and picks up his fork. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

I look up at him, smiling a watery smile. Feeling so happy. So full up with happiness, like the overture from The Marriage of Figaro. “I don’t think I’ll ever be happier than I am right now. Thank you, Laszlo. I don’t know what would have happened to me if you hadn’t talked to me in the street that day.”

Laszlo just looks at me, his eyes full of feeling. He takes a deep breath and I think he’s going to say something else, but he goes back to his seat. “Open your present, sweetheart.”

I do, and inside I find a beautiful silver pendant and earrings. “To go with your dress tonight,” he explains.

They’ll look beautiful with the red satin gown hanging in my wardrobe. As I’m a soloist tonight I don’t have to wear black. “Thank you, Laszlo, they’re perfect.”

He watches me close the box and stroke my fingers over the velvet some more. “You could call your father. You can do anything you want. You’re eighteen now.”

But I don’t want to spoil the day by dredging up that awful part of my life, the time after my mother died and before I met Laszlo. I’ve done such a good job all these years of pretending those months never happened.

One day I’ll see Dad. One day. Just not now.

There’s a full house at the Mayhew for the concert that night and the four of us who are graduating stand out, bright and colorful, against the sea of black as we wait backstage. Laszlo has a white shirt on beneath his black suit, open at the neck. I love seeing him this way. No bowtie and tails for youth orchestra performances. He scratches a hand through his long hair, his eyes bright with excitement as they always are before a performance.

He puts a warm hand on my shoulder before I head upstairs with the others to tune up. “You look beautiful. Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

I go up on tiptoe and kiss his cheek, happiness flushing through me, and his hand clasps me briefly about the waist.

As we play through the program I look up at him often and smile, and he smiles back, just a glimmer each time but so much for a man like Laszlo who is always so focused while he’s working. When we finish The Swan and I open my eyes he smiles properly at me as the applause rolls over us. Hayley’s in the front row of the audience wiping tears from her face and when I catch her eye she waves frantically at me and gives me two thumbs up.

Soon it’s time for the finale. Laszlo has his back to the audience and they can’t see what he’s doing, but we can. We all struggle to keep straight faces as he puts something around his neck and over his face. Behind him, the audience are shifting curiously, trying to see what’s going on. Laszlo raises his hands, as he would before the introduction to any piece, and they settle again. He gives a downbeat, and the first famous eight notes of Symphony No. 5 by Beethoven sound from the string section.