Page 60 of The Protege

I kiss her fiercely and roll her beneath me. The urge to declare that no one ever will is so strong but I make myself stay silent. I’m conscious of not saying too much. Being too much. I don’t want to push her or smother her when I’ve only just encircled her in my arms. I press my forehead against hers and whisper, “I knew I was screwed when we played that piece.”

“Vocalise,” she guesses.

I nod. “You were so beautiful when you came to me with that piece. A woman just about grown up, and yet you weren’t. I couldn’t tell you how I felt. I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Isabeau looks pained and starts to speak, but I put a finger over her lips. “I’m not asking for sympathy. It was my responsibility to deal with. I’m glad you didn’t know how I felt at the time, though I’m sorry I was cold to you and it upset you. It wasn’t on purpose, sweetheart.”

She nods sadly, remembering. “You started to pull away from me that year. You stopped saying good girl. Giving me hugs just because. I wondered if it was because I was going to leave and you didn’t think there wasn’t any point to us being close anymore.”

I hold her close, as greedy for her as a parched man in the desert is for a drop of water. “No. It was because I liked doing those things too much.”

“You kept playing Vocalise with me,” she points out.

I remember all those hours in the music room together. The turmoil in my heart. The longing as I watched her play. “I made myself give up a lot of things, sweetheart, but I couldn’t give up that.”

Her hands move over my throat, my collarbone, my shoulders. I love her touching me, her fingers moving lightly, exploring my body. Her hands are fine and pretty against my thicker bones and muscles. As I watch her those instincts to protect and dominate surge up. Such a pretty little thing she is. How I love to feel her fluttering like a bird in my merciless grip.

“Did you ever date, Laszlo? While I was living with you?”

It takes me a moment to drag my mind out of the dark place it’s delved into and I have to repeat her question in my mind. “Date. Not exactly. I had, ah, friends.”

She smiles. “You mean those women who used to come round late at night and you’d sneak them up to your bedroom?”

I feel my face transform in horror. Isabeau knew? But I was always so careful to get those women into the house quietly and to keep them quiet once they were there. The gags I like to use served two purposes back then. I didn’t want Isabeau hearing anything and it just felt unseemly for a child to know I had casual female company in my bedroom every other week, and rarely the same woman for longer than a few months. “God, you didn’t hear—”

“No, no,” she assures me quickly. “Just a woman’s voice sometimes. Some laughing. There was one who sounded like a goose.”

I grin. “Oh, her. Do you know she was one of the most talented sopranos I’d ever met? And with a laugh like that.”

Isabeau giggles in my arms. “But why didn’t you date? Properly I mean. You…you seem to like company.”

I enjoy “company”, but dating, there’s a difference. When Isabeau was younger I didn’t have the time—or rather, the time I wanted to invest was in Isabeau. Her schooling, her tutors, playing music with her. Later, when she was more independent, I did have the time, but I kept myself busy with the youth orchestra and my work. When Isabeau wanted to spend her free nights with me it was easy to tell myself she needed me. “I don’t know,” I hedge. “I didn’t find anyone I wanted to date.”

But she’s too perceptive for that. “It was because of me, wasn’t it?”

I clear my throat. “In a way. I had you, I had music, I had my orchestra. I didn’t want anything else. I was happy.”

Isabeau sits up, her expression bright and urgent. “All that you’re saying, it was the same for me. I only wanted to be with you. I was happiest when I was with you. I don’t want you to have any regrets, Laszlo. Promise me.”

In this moment with my arms around her my happiness is complete. My beautiful girl, the only one I will ever want. But I’m silent for a moment, thinking. “I have one regret.”

She looks distressed by my confession.

“I wish I could have spared you your pain,” I tell her. “I regret making you feel like you’d done something shameful by kissing me. I know I did and I’m deeply sorry for that, sweet girl.”

Isabeau threads her fingers through my hair. “I know you are. I’m sorry, too. For running away.”