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A black skirt is draped over my knees; a shiny cello rests in between. My dark hair is pulled away from my face into a tight chignon at the base of my neck. Pressing firmly on the metal strings, my fingers glide over the ebony fingerboard. My wrist glides my bow across the cello. It makes a melancholy sound that feels like it’s being torn from my heart and projected through the wood. My stomach is twisting over and over again. I know this music by heart. I know my part. I know what to expect from the orchestra playing in the shadows of the stage that surround me. But him. He’s not supposed to be here.
I swallow hard, glancing up at him when he isn’t looking. His has dark hair falls into his eyes as he plays. That violin—the one I remember—it’s pressed to his neck, leaning softly against his broad shoulder. He looks too rugged to be playing such a delicate instrument. I’d always thought so, but he plays like his muse lives within the wood of that violin. His bright blue eyes are closed as he sways to the music.
Suddenly, I catch him glancing at me from over his music stand. Golden light spills over his face highlighting the angles of his cheeks. He looks from under those dark lashes with those piercing eyes, and I can’t breathe. I’m caught in his snare. He peers over the top of his violin at me as he plays. The conductor stands between us swaying his arms, prompting the other musicians, keeping us in sync with the people on the stage.
Continuing to slide my bow across the strings, I play. Every second that ticks by feels like eternity. I think about what I’ll say to him after work is done, after we’ve packed our instruments into their black cases. Courage locks my eyes with his. Our gazes burn in the shadows of the stage, our eyes speak words neither of us has the courage to say—words that have gone unspoken too long. If I could take everything back, I would. If there was a way to start over, to show him how much I missed him, I’d take it. My heart races faster. I slide my fingers slowly over the neck of my cello. Each note plays like a gentle caress, and I wish that I could touch him so softly one last time.
Subtle stubble lines his cheeks. As we play, his eyes remain locked on mine. Regret pours through my heart and pumps through my body. Although I’m surrounded by music, I don’t hear it. Instead, I hear our last words—the exasperation in his voice. The sharp pain shoots through me again, but it’s dulled by time and remorse.
I had let him leave. I had let him walk away without an explanation. Without a word.
The conductor turns toward my section, prompting us with a wave of his hand to play louder. I break our gaze and feel the pit of my stomach sink, and play as I’m commanded. The music floods my soul and spreads through every inch of me. My body rocks gently as I grip the cello tighter with my knees, holding it in place. My fingers dance down the fingerboard in long slow strokes, rocking to make the sound resonate. It spreads to the people sitting in their seats who are diligently watching the actors on the stage above us.
I concentrate, trying to force him out of my mind, trying to push out the sound of his voice and the memories of his laughter. I play on and he doesn’t look up at me again. We’re two people that are so close together, but we are still so far apart. It feels like someone is squeezing my heart. My body flushes and heat snakes up from deep within my belly. It tastes bitter, like so many things needlessly lost. That’s what he is. That is what he represents—everything that could have been—the life I threw away when I let him go.
I can’t stand it anymore. For the past three years, I’ve been living my life in ‘what-if’ mode, wondering. I’m always wondering what if I did this differently, what if I kissed him, what if I told him what I wanted? What if…? I asked myself these questions until there were no questions left to ask. The answer was always the same—I’ll never know—not unless he crosses my path again.
Swallowing hard, I look up at him. His eyes are lowered, sliding across the music on the stand in front of him. Michael crossed my path again. It was fate, luck, or destiny—whatever you want to call it, it meant the same thing—it meant I was given a second chance. Hope filled my chest, as I realized what I wanted to do. As soon as this show is over, I’m going to talk to him. At the very least, I want to see that he’s all right, but my stomach twists hoping for more, hoping that he still feels something for me.
After the last note is played, I feel a rush wash over me. I’m nervous. My body shakes when we are dismissed. Rising, I take my cello backstage and pack it up. Michael is behind me. I feel his eyes on my back. I take a deep breath and place my cello in the case, and stow my bow. Pressing my lips together anxiously, I turn around. The small space is crammed full of people wearing black and white, putting away shiny instruments, but Michael isn’t there. He’s gone. My gaze falls to the floor as all the hope drains from my body. Throwing the strap across my shoulder, I lift my case and walk out of the theatre and down the street into the balmy night.
It’s hotter than usual. Tugging the cello home tonight ensures I’ll be covered in sweat. I unbutton my collar revealing a choker and delicate silver chains that disappear beneath. I think back to the last time I saw him and realize that I’m not the same girl anymore. He saw it in me, but I denied it. I thought I had to be something else—someone else. I didn’t understand then, but I do now.
Dread fills my legs, making them feel like lead. I walk slowly, shouldering my way between people on the sidewalks. I feel eyes on me, but when I turn to look I don’t see who it was. There are always people in the city. It doesn’t matter what time it is. I run my hand over my neck, smoothing my skin. Ignoring the sensation, I walk on. Neon signs blaze around me in a kaleidoscope of color, blinking reds, greens, and blues on my pale skin. My face is a blank mask. I look at everyone, and see no one. I just want to go home, but I’m so hungry.
My feet slow as I walk past a deli. At the last second I turn and head back for the door, nearly knocking a few people over in the process. My cello case is clutched to my shoulder like a purse. I pull it closer to my body to avoid giving someone a concussion. I push through the door and get on line. As I’m scanning the menu, thinking about what to order, I feel that tickle on the back of my neck again. My hand flies to the spot and I turn slowly.
When our eyes meet, my breath catches in my throat.
“Ashley,” he breathes. Michael is standing behind me, his blue eyes pinning me in place.
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RELEASE DATE: JULY 13, 2012 (ebook format only)