Page 77 of The Protege

I look down at the dozens of letters spread all around me. This is what he was keeping from me, at my father’s request. My father tried to get better, for me, but was ashamed that he couldn’t. Even on his deathbed Dad was too proud to tell me the truth.

I pick up the next letter. And the next. I read and read. There’s a letter around the time I’m seventeen with a three-page description of me sitting at my cello while we play together. The paper is smudged with fingerprints and the folds are wearing thin, as if this letter has been read many, many times. Between the lines I can read all the longing that Laszlo had for me, and hid from me.

Tears fill my eyes. We want each other so much, but we still can’t make it work.

Sometime around three in the morning I find Laszlo’s last letter, written, I’m shocked to see, a few days after I fled his house. I read it, and I feel my heart break.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Laszlo

Now

I thought losing Isabeau when she was eighteen years old would be the worst thing I’d ever experience in my life. Losing her a second time is far, far more painful. She’s in terrible grief and I can do nothing to help her. She won’t let me help her. I’ve stopped calling but I message her every single day. I’m here if you need me. I’m always here for you sweetheart, no matter what. Please talk to me. My messages go unanswered but I will keep sending them until she comes back to me. Or until she tells me to stop.

She loves me. Or, she did. I don’t know how she feels about me now. Maybe she hates me. The confession took me by surprise and like last time it was guilt that made me silent. How could I tell her I love her, too, when she doesn’t know about the letters? It wouldn’t have been fair. Do I tell her now, against her father’s wishes? Did he already tell her on his deathbed and she’s too angry with me for hiding things from her to speak to me?

I’m still struggling with it. I don’t know.

Meanwhile I work. I tell Mr. Anumak in Bangkok that he has to be patient, that I can’t decide on his offer just yet. That I need time to think. The orchestra is back together at the Mayhew but I’m just going through the motions. None of this feels right without Isabeau.

Two days after the funeral I’m rehearsing with the orchestra at the Mayhew when someone walks out onto the stage.

Isabeau.

Her face is pale and her eyes dark green with some strong emotion. The orchestra falls silent as I turn to her. I want to crush her to me, to tell her how sorry I am. To beg for forgiveness.

She looks tired, like she hasn’t slept all night. There’s a piece of paper in her hand.

A letter.

My handwriting. My letters. Laurent kept my letters, all these years, and Isabeau has found them. She’s read them.

“I wanted to tell you,” I whisper.

Isabeau just stares at me. I search her face, trying to discern what she’s feeling. She knows what I’ve been keeping from her. She has every right to be furious with me that we went behind her back all these years and denied her the comfort of knowing her father knew everything she was doing. That he was trying, for her.

It can make all the difference in the world, knowing that at least someone tried.

Beside us, the orchestra are all still and silent, watching us. Isabeau lifts the letter in a trembling hand and starts to read aloud.

Laurent,

I’m writing this sitting on her bed in her empty room. There are still clothes in the wardrobe. An empty teacup on her bedside table with cold dregs at the bottom. Lipstick on the dresser. Sheet music spread on the floor.

She’s gone. This is the last letter I will ever write to you because Isabeau has left, and I drove her away.

When I took her from you all I saw was a vulnerable child in a terrible place, and I had a way to lift her up out of it and give her everything that she deserved. I didn’t think about the woman she would become. The questions that would haunt her. The answers she’d lack.

I never imagined the way I would grow to feel about her.

I’ve never told anyone how I feel, not even Isabeau, but I’ve fallen in love with my protégé. She’s only eighteen. I can’t tell her. She looks to me for support and comfort and it would be so, so easy to convince her that she’s in love with me, too. I’ve enjoyed influencing and protecting her all these years. I’ve kept her jealously close to me, just me, all mine, and I worry that my protection has become something insidious. I’ve always thought of myself as a good man but I don’t know if I’m good man around her anymore. I tell myself that I only want what’s best for her and fool myself that it’s a coincidence when her wishes align with mine. That she doesn’t want to see you. That she doesn’t date. That she wants to kiss me. She’s never been rebellious or gone against even a single one of my wishes and now I wonder why. As I look back over our years together I don’t know if I’ve walked with her down this path or forced her onto it.


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