As a kid, Mom had taken me to several daytime practices of local plays. One by one the orchestra would tune each instrument. The cacophony was as soothing then as it was now. An image pulled at my heart. Mom was running her hands along the tops of the seats. Even with Garuda’s help, she wouldn’t be entering a theatre anytime soon. Until Stephen had accused her of coercing critics, I’d thought Mom secretly resented me for killing her career. But the nurse painted a different story. Right here, alone with my thoughts, there was a bit of relief and I wasn’t sure why.
The lights dimmed, and I shrugged out of my coat. Before I could save the seat next to me a couple took the last of the empty chairs. Earlier, Ty had come up with a plan. Whoever saw Denton first was to monopolize his time until the other could join. Between the two of us, we would find Denton and ask about my mother. My stomach twisted, no longer sure if we should be convincing Denton. I couldn’t admit it to Ty yet. He hadn’t seen my mother. To be fair, I didn’t fully understand what I was feeling or what had transpired at the hospital. The only thing I knew for certain was my mother was dying.
Without a master of ceremonies, the curtain rose, revealing two empty seats on the stage. A raven-haired man in jeans walked in, holding a small banjo, immediately followed by a blonde man in a tuxedo carrying a violin. The banjo player plucked a few notes and walked toward his seat. Just as he was about to sit, the violinist ran the bow across his instrument and mimicked the same notes. The banjo player nearly missed his seat, much to the delight of the audience. Like a soothing breeze, joy caressed each audience member, gaining strength row by row.
The banjo player began again, this time with a longer rendition.
With a toss of his hair, the violinist smiled. My heart leapt.
“Rhys,” I whispered. A spark lit inside me. Leaning in, I felt hte fire spread.
Rhys matched the banjo player note for note. Four more times, they bantered back and forth. Rhys deftly stroked the violin into the cheerful fiddle song of cowboys. The banjo joined in mid-measure, and the audience clapped along. Faster and faster they dueled, each man furiously and happily dancing along with his instrument until they collapsed simultaneously with dramatic flair into their respective chairs to grateful applause.
While the men retreated to the shadows, a young girl in a white satin dress waltzed and spun to a silent dance in the center of the stage. With the help of a hidden orchestra, she sang O Holy Night in a polished, unexpectedly mature voice. She was followed by a blind woman, her cane thin and covered in twinkling crystals. She played a piano medley of David Lanz, Bach, and George Winston. The confidence she carried, the accuracy of her fingers. The audience—including me, watched in wonder.
Rhys entered the stage once more. He had visited me in my dreams, this fair boy named Rhys. The thought of his soft, golden hair and sky-blue eyes warmed my cheeks. Soft hair? I’d never touched it, but I knew it was smooth, fine. His laugh was airy and easily provoked—I had never heard him laugh. Nor had I ever touched him.
A small orchestra composed of several elementary-aged children appeared behind Rhys. With respectful silence, he began to play Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in the appropriate D Minor.
My hands wrestled in my lap, tangling the silky folds of my dress. I had loved this song when my mother played it. She’d close her eyes and sway with the music. Even as a child, the emotions and the story resonated with me. It was a four-part tribute to Johann S. Bach’s first wife and her death. Rhys played the low hum to the youngsters’ accompaniment.
The loss of Bach’s wife was tangible, held in every note, the pain etched in Rhys’ face. I felt the unbreakable pull, the moth to the light, the lion to its prey, as I watched.
The mood of the music seemed to flow through his body, consuming him. Genuine.
I glanced around. Every man and woman sat frozen. They appeared engrossed in their own painful memory of loss.
I rose from my seat and kept to the shadows, inching along the balcony, closer to the side for the stage below. No one should feel this strongly about a stranger—at least no sane person. Unable to maintain my composure, I wrapped my arms around my waist and fled the auditorium.
With a hand on the rail, I ran down the stairs gripping the skirt of my dress. Someone called my name. Refusing to answer, I turned to another round of stairs, hoping it led to a back entrance. The light dimmed as I descended into the belly of the theatre. There was a feeling of comfort in the stairwell, urging me to keep going. My phone vibrated, pulling me back to my senses. With the back of my hand I wiped my wet cheek. Only an idiot would cry like this.
My phone vibrated again. Leaning against the rail, I pulled my phone from my bodice.
It was Ty. Sitting next to Denton. Where are you going?
Of course he’d found Denton. Ty was forever in the right place at the right time.
Another text. Get. Over. Here.
Looking around, I wondered where I was. The floor was cement. Ty didn’t need to worry, not tonight. I texted back, Bathroom.
The lights were turned down as if I was behind or under the stage. The sound of a door opening startled me. I half expected Ty to appear but I kept quiet. Whoever it was would scurry to get whatever prop and then disappear again. A man sighed, the sound echoing to where I stood on the stairs. I felt a pull, the warmth of an impending embrace tugged at me. It didn’t make sense—I stood frozen, unsure if I should give into the feeling or run up the stairs to my cousin.
The unmistakable sound of an instrument case opening pulled at my heart. Late at night, when my mother thought I was sleeping—when she should be sleeping—Mom would open her cello case and play. I’d wait for the sound and sneak to my bedroom door. Some melodies were sad, others were peaceful but with my back against the door, I’d feel as if all was right in the world.
And then she stopped.
Sinking to the cold, cement stairs, I wrapped my arms around my knees, the memory too strong to bare standing up. Stephen had come, threatening to take me from her if she didn’t clean up her act. I’d hid under my bed and heard every word. I was only twelve but wished with all my heart I could make them stop arguing. I’d never loved and hated two people with such intensity at the same time. Stephen had left in a huff and my mother began drinking and playing. Her hand slipped and the bow slammed into the floor, breaking in two pieces. In the drunken rage, she kicked the cello. The evidence and instrument were gone the next morning—as was my mother. For the next few months, I would visit her on Family Night at the high-end rehab facility where she’d hob nob with celebrities eager for my mother to put their lives on the stage. At least, according to her. Like an idiot, I hung on her every word, devouring each lie.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and stood on the stairs. A thought nagged me. Stephen had mentioned my mother’s plays. What if everything my uncle had said was true?
“I’m not doing interviews no matter how sneaky you people are.” The voice was familiar. And a man’s.
Shocked, I opened my eyes. Rhys stood before me, his tuxedo jacket gone and the first few buttons on his white shirt undone. He motioned upstairs, indicating where I should go.
Gripping the rail, I stood. “I’m not a reporter.”
He stepped closer, narrowing his eyes. I ducked my chin, wondering if he could see the changing color of my eyes in the darkened stairwell.
A door opened at the top of the stairs. “Isla Belle?” Ty called from above.
Rhys flinched. With wide eyes he retreated, his back against the wall. He shook his head and disappeared around the corner in the dark, taking my breath with him.