Page 65 of The Protege

“I caught Isabeau telling viola jokes.”

Marcus grins. “Which ones? Wait, I know a good one. ‘What’s the difference between a viola player and a vacuum cleaner?’”

“You have to plug a vacuum cleaner in before it can suck,” I finish impatiently. “Yes, I know all the viola jokes.”

He snorts with laughter, but when he catches my eye he finishes seriously, “If Isabeau was telling jokes on stage or during rehearsal I can have a word with her about being more professional.”

“I already have. That’s what I was doing on Khaosan Road, telling her off about it.”

Marcus stares at me. “What, when you were kissing her? Bloody hell, she’s got you twisted around her little finger already.”

Despite myself, I smile broadly. I am thoroughly twisted around Isabeau’s little finger. I’ve never been burdened with a soft heart but it’s a delightful affliction to have. It’s wonderful being stern with Isabeau but it’s even better telling her what a sweet little girl she is for daddy. And she is. Fuck me, she is.

Marcus’ eyes widen. “You don’t even mind.”

I don’t, but I realize we’re getting distracted. “I’m serious, Marcus. Are we going to have a problem in the orchestra? Not everyone is going to take this merely as good gossip.”

He muses on this for a moment, tilting his glass back and forth. “I shouldn’t say so. Miss Laurent isn’t staying beyond the tour, is she?” I hesitate, and Marcus’ eyes spark with interest. “Oh?”

“It’s complicated. I don’t know. I just…” I want her to have the career she deserves. If the worst happens and she can’t find work then she’ll have a place in my orchestra until the scandal passes. And it will pass. People have short memories these days.

“You just like her very much,” he finishes.

I can feel myself being pulled in so many directions, by my desire for Isabeau, by my need to see her achieve all the things she wants. I wish I could tell if I’m doing everything I can for her, unselfishly and objectively. “She’s a wonderful cello player,” I hedge.

Marcus gives me a long look. “Come on, Laszlo, she’s more than that to you. It’s not just the kissing in the street. I saw the way you two were looking at each other in the Mayhew the day she turned up out of the blue. As if the last time you saw each other you two had a quarrel.” He hesitates, and then adds, “A lovers’ quarrel.”

He must suspect how old she was the last time I saw her. I can’t bear the thought of people whispering dirty things about her, that I touched her while she was underage. “I never—”

He cuts across me. “I know you’d never. That’s why you fought, isn’t it?”

I scrub my hands over my face. I wasn’t ready to talk about this with anyone but it seems like I have no choice. “Yes. She caught me by surprise on her eighteenth birthday and I panicked.”

He nods, understanding. “And now?”

I take a sip of whisky, giving myself time to think. “I don’t care what people think about me but I worry what people will say about her. And I think it would hurt her if people are horrible about me.”

Marcus thinks for a long time, and then he claps me on the shoulder. “It’ll be all right, old man. You’ll see.”

I wish I could share his optimism but I have a terrible feeling in my belly that everything is about to go wrong. I’m so used to being in control of everything in my life and it’s more important than ever now that I have Isabeau back. But I can’t control this.

In the morning there’s a knock at my door and when I open it I see it’s Isabeau, smiling up at me. I feel my own smile break over my face just looking at her and I gather her into my arms, closing the door behind her. “Good morning, baby. Sleep well?”

She rises up on her tiptoes and kisses me, the vanilla scent of her shampoo filling the air. Just having her in my arms is enough to drive away all my gloomy thoughts from the night before.

“Very well, daddy. I’m better than I have been in a long time, actually.”

I smile again, hearing her call me daddy. I’ve got a sweet tooth for Isabeau. I stroke the backs of my fingers over her cheek. “You are, kitten?”

She tells me about practicing her cello in the conference room and how she thinks she’s uncovered her musical voice, the quality in her playing that will make people want to go to see her rather than any other soloist. All I’ve wanted since the first day I met her is for Isabeau to be happy and looking at her now I can see she is. Sincerely happy. Only she can play music in her unique, beautiful way. I’ve heard it for the longest time. I can’t wait for other people to hear her, too.