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I went back and forth about what to write for this post, then decided to let my “real” writing speak for me. So, here’s an excerpt (Chapters 1 and 2) from the next novel in the Blue Notes Series, “The Melody Thief,” which is scheduled to be released by Dreamspinner Press in August. Enjoy and have a wonderful Easter, Happy Passover, Happy Spring, or whatever you’re celebrating! -Shira
NOTE: Usual warnings, 18+ over please for sexual content and language, prepublication excerpt (final version may change). Enjoy!
Chapter One: The Melody Thief
He screwed up his face, trying to ignore the bright lights at the edge of the stage, which burned his eyes and left multicolored imprints on his retinas. Cary Redding was barely fifteen years old, but he sat straight-backed, his expression revealing only calm resolve. Unlike some of the well-known performers he had watched on video, he did not move his body in time to the music, nor did he bend and sway. The cello became a physical extension of his body and he had no need to move anything more than his fingers on the fingerboard and his bow over the strings.
When he played, he was transported to a place where it didn’t matter that his face had begun to break out, or that he seemed to grow out of his shoes every other month. When he played, he forgot his fear that he was different—that he was far more interested in Jerry Gabriel than in Jerry’s sister, Martha. When he played, he felt the kind of warmth he had horsing around with his brother in the back yard, chasing after a football without his mother telling him it was too dangerous and he might hurt himself.
For the past three years, he had studied the Elgar Cello Concerto, a soulful, intensely passionate composition, and one he adored. His cello teacher had explained that it had been composed at the end of World War I, and the music reflected the grief and disillusionment of the composer. At the time, he hadn’t been really sure what that meant, but he connected with the music deep within his soul, in a place that he showed no one. In that music, he could express what he could not express any other way, and somehow nobody ever seemed to understand that, although the music was Elgar’s, the sadness and the melancholy were his own.
At times, he was terrified the audience would discover his secret: that he was unworthy of the beauty of this music. But then his fingers would follow their well-worn path across the fingerboard and his bow would move of its own accord. The music would rise and fall and engulf him entirely, and the audience would be on its feet to acknowledge the gangly, awkward teenager who had just moved them to tears.
Tonight was no exception. The Tulsa Performing Arts Center was packed with pillars of the community, come to hear the young soloist the Chicago Sun Times had proclaimed as “one of the brightest new voices in classical music.” Cries of “bravo” punctuated the applause, and a shy little girl in a white dress with white tights and white shoes climbed the steps to the stage with her mother’s encouragement, handing him a single red rose.
He stood with his cello at his side and bowed as he had been taught not long after he learned to walk. The accompanist bowed as well, smiling back at him with the same awed expression he had seen from pianists and conductors alike.
In that moment, he felt like a thief. A liar. The worst kind of cheat.
Backstage, afterward, he and his mother greeted some of the symphony’s board. “Young man,” the woman in the red cocktail dress with the double strand of pearls said as she laid her hand on his shoulder, “you are truly a wonder. You must come back soon and play for us again.”
He knew how to respond; he had been taught this as well. “Thank you, ma’am.” His voice cracked, as it had on and off for the past six months, and his face reddened. He was embarrassed that he could not control this as well as he could his performance.
“He’s booked through the next year,” his mother told the woman, “but if there’s an opening, we’ll be sure to let you know.” She would find an opening, no doubt, even if it meant sacrificing his one free weekend at home. Janet Redding promoted her son like a woman possessed.
Back in the green room, his mother looked on as he wiped down the fingerboard of his instrument and gently replaced it in its fiberglass case, taking care to secure the bow in the lid. He had barely looked at his mother since they had left the small crowd of well-wishers who had gathered in the wings. He didn’t need to see her face to know she was displeased. Instead he hummed as he often did when he wanted to forget how he had, once again, let her down—this time, a melody from a Mozart sonata he had been studying.
“You rushed through the pizzicato in the last movement,” she said. “We’ve been over that section so many times, Cary Taylor Redding. You let your mind wander again.”
He tried not to cringe; she only used his full name when she was very disappointed in him. “I’m sorry.” His voice cracked again and he inwardly winced. He didn’t have to fight back the tears anymore. He had stopped crying years ago.
“We’ll just have to practice it some more.”
He had also long since stopped asking her why she always said “we” would practice something, when he was the one doing the practicing. The one and only time he had pressed the issue, she had responded with a look of long-suffering patience. For days after, the guilt had pierced his gut and roiled around inside until he had apologized for several days running.
“Hurry up now,” she told him. “We have a long drive back home.”
“Did Justin call?” he asked with a hopeful expression.
“Why would he call?”
“He said he’d let me know if his team won tonight.” He pulled on his thick winter jacket and grabbed the handle of the cello case, pulling it across the floor on its roller-skate wheels.
“He can tell you all about it tomorrow.”
He fell asleep in the front seat of the minivan as they headed back toMissouri. He did not dream, or at least, he didn’t remember what he had dreamed about. He never did.
Chapter Two: Best Laid Plans
Milan, Italy – Thirteen years later
“Oh, fuck, yeah!” Cary shouted in English as he pushed back against his partner’s hips. The skinny Italian kid he’d picked up grunted and thrust harder, ratcheting up the pace so Cary had to grip the commode to keep his balance. Sweat dripped down his neck. He never enjoyed kissing. He didn’t need it. He liked it like this: rough, fast, and anonymous.
Someone in the next stall laughed but Cary didn’t give a shit. This was how it was supposed to be in a place like this and someone else listening in only made it so much hotter. Here, he was just another nameless fuck, and that suited him just fine.
“That’s it. Oh, God, yes!” he cried as the kid nailed his gland again. He stroked himself in rhythm with the young man’s thrusts, groaning as he came with a strangled gasp into his sweaty palm. The smell of come mingled with the faint scent of urine and toilet deodorizer. Years ago, the combination had made him sick. Now, the seediness of it just made it more of a turn-on.
His partner grunted as he came hard, his body shuddering and his breaths coming in stutters. A minute later, the kid pulled out. Cary saw the used condom hit the water of the commode and heard the sounds of a zipper as well as the latch being released on the stall door. Caryhad already forgotten the kid’s face. It was better this way. He didn’t want anything but sex anyhow, and he didn’t want to be forced to make small talk. In Italian, no less.
He leaned against the grimy wall and wiped himself with the cheap toilet paper, adding it to the condom in the water and flushing it down. His stomach rumbled—a few more drinks and he wouldn’t remember that he was hungry. He’d reheat something when he got back, or maybe just sleep it off and grab something in the morning instead. It was usually better to nurse a hangover with an empty stomach, as he knew from experience.
He walked back into the bar and sat at a table in the corner, making eye contact with the bartender. A minute or two later, he nursed a scotch and soda, his fourth that night, and leaned over to the man at the next table.
“Sigaretta?” Cary asked.
The man grunted and handed him a cigarette, lighting it for Cary as they leaned toward each other to span the short gap between tables.
Cary hated cigarettes. He only smoked in bars, and only after sex. At least that’s what he told himself. He preferred the unfiltered variety—it gave him a more immediate buzz. They were easier to find here than in the States.
His hand shook slightly as he brought the cigarette to his lips and inhaled the acrid smoke. It was better than the drugs, right? He’d tried those, too, but he’d given them up because they interfered with his playing. He could always sleep off the booze and the nicotine.
One of the regulars walked through the entrance and their eyes met. Silvio. Nice ass. Terrific bottom.
It was turning out to be a great night.
At nearly three in the morning, Cary stumbled out onto the empty Milan side street. His ass was sore and his thigh muscles were tight. He liked it that way. He needed to feel it in his bones the next morning or he hadn’t gotten enough.
A light fog hung over the city, the fall air cool and damp. Cary shivered, his thin t-shirt little help against the chilly breeze. His housekeeper was right—curse Roberta, she was always right—he should have worn his leather jacket. He looked around for a cab but there were none in sight. He’d walk over to main avenue, via Padova, to catch one.
Fuck, he thought, tripping over the uneven pavement as he turned the corner onto another small street. He didn’t notice the two men huddled in the doorway of a darkened building until one of them grabbed him by the neck. He caught the glint of a knife in his peripheral vision. Fucking hell. This wasn’t amusing, even with the buzz of the alcohol.
“Soldi,” hissed one of the thugs, the one standing in front of him smoking the remainder of a joint.
“I don’t understand,” Cary said in English. It was a lie. He was fluent in Italian. “I’m American.”
“Money,” the man repeated, in English this time. “Give.”
“Don’t have any.” He didn’t pull his wallet out and hand it over. Maybe it was the after-effects of the alcohol. Or maybe it was the rough sex and the feeling of empowerment that still lingered at his frayed edges. Either way, he wasn’t going to let these assholes push him around.
The man’s response came in the form of a knee to his gut. Cary doubled over, coughing and spluttering. Shit. Was that blood he tasted on his tongue?
“You’re fucking insistent, aren’t you?” he blustered. This time, the arm pressed against his Adam’s apple tightened and Cary’s vision swam with tiny specks of silver.
The man standing in front of him nodded. A hand reached into Cary’s jeans pocket, pulling out the soft calfskin wallet and holding it up to the light. “Expensive,” he told his partner in Italian.
“You come with us.” The other thug’s expression was one of triumphant glee. He pulledCary’s ATM card out of the wallet and waved it in his face. “Bank.”
“No fucking way.” Cary shouted. He wrenched himself out from the head-hold and backed toward the curb.
The lights of via Padova were visible a scant block away. If he could just make it there, he might be able to get help or maybe scare them off. He turned to run, but something hard hit him in the kidneys and he fell to his knees. He struggled back to his feet. Before he could defend himself, a fist connected with his chin and he fell backward onto the concrete. He tried to maintain his balance but failed miserably. He hit the concrete, hands first, and something in his left wrist snapped. He vomited up what little food was left in his stomach as a wave of intense pain washed over him.
“Asshole,” he spat.
“Get away from him.” The voice came from nearby, but the pain in Cary’s gut was still so bad that he couldn’t manage to look up at the newcomer’s face. He heard a noisy scuffle, the thudding sound of a fist connecting with bone, a groan, and then footsteps running down the pavement.
“Are you all right?”
He pushed the hand on his shoulder away without thinking. The world spun and the pain in his wrist shot up his arm. “Oh, shit,” he groaned, clutching the wrist.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man said, this time in lightly-accented English. “You need help.” The voice was calm, reassuring. “You need a hospital.”
“No hospital,” Cary gasped and tried to stay alert. “Leave me alone.”
He got back to his feet and the lights from the boulevard blurred at the edges. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was two strong arms as they caught him.
Cary awoke in an unfamiliar bed with the muffled sound of voices speaking in Italian at the periphery of his consciousness. “…found him off via Padova. No identification. The man who brought him says he’s an American.”
He forced his eyes open and saw the metal sides of the hospital bed, the IV hanging from the pole and taped to his hand, and the light yellow curtains at the sides of the bed. The place smelled like disinfectant.
The last time he had been in a hospital was when he had watched his mother wither away and die, her body wracked with pain from the chemo and radiation. He remembered his own guilt as he had sat by her bed, helpless to do anything. It had been the final insult—a coda, as it were, to their tumultuous relationship. He had never done anything right by her.
He reached for his right earlobe, jostling the IV but not caring. The small diamond stud in his ear was still there, thank God. It was a gift from his brother on his twenty-first birthday, and the only piece of jewelry he wore.
As his vision cleared, the shadows in the room shifted. No, not shadows—a man, seated in the corner. “How are you feeling?” he asked in English as he stood up and walked over to the bed.
Carystudied the newcomer through a haze of pain killers. Italian, judging by his accent, although his appearance was not classically Italian: blond hair, blue eyes, about the same height as Cary, early thirties, and hot as hell. Not that a man like that would ever look twice at Cary. Guys like him never did, and who could blame them?
“Do I know you?” Cary’s voice was hoarse and his mouth felt full of cotton.
The man looked back at him with a mixture of concern and humor. “You could say we’ve met.”
“You… you’re the man from the street.” Cary recognized the voice. “How long have I been here?”
“A day. Perhaps I must introduce myself,” he added. “I am Antonio Bianchi.”
“C….”Caryhesitated. “Connor Taylor.”
It was the name he used in the clubs. Or at least it had been ever since his agent had bailed him out of jail, when a not-so-rainbow-friendly gendarme had caught him quite literally with his pants down outside a shithole of a Paris bar.
“What you do with your life off the concert stage isn’t my business,” Georges Duhamel had told him after he’d bailed Cary out, “but you must at least use another name. I won’t have you toss your career in the toilette.”
When all was said and done (and after he’d had a fake New YorkStatedriver’s license made under the name, “Connor L. Taylor”), Cary enjoyed being “Connor.” Unlike Cary, nobody gave a shit if Connor liked to fuck men in the restrooms or alleyways behind rundown bars. Why would anyone care? After a few years, “Connor” had become Cary’s excuse for the late nights and anonymous fucks—when he wasn’t practicing or performing, Cary Redding was Connor Taylor.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Antonio said after a slight hesitation.
“Thanks. For last night, I mean.”
His wrist ached, throbbing to a dull beat like an insistent drum. His head felt like it was filled with jagged rocks. He looked down and saw the cast on his left arm. He vaguely remembered falling. Right, he had tried to catch himself before he hit the pavement.
“My wrist.” He spoke the words aloud and his voice cracked. He tried to move his fingers, but the pain was so bad he gasped. A broken wrist meant he couldn’t play. Without his cello, he was nothing. His stomach clenched and his eyes burned. In an effort to master his emotions, he turned away and bit his cheek.
“The doctor says your wrist will be fine,” Antonio said, perhaps sensing Cary’s distress.
This can’t be real. I’m going to wake up and….
“I need to get out of here.” The hospital room was suddenly too small. Panicked, Cary tried to sit up, but Antonio put a firm hand on his shoulder.
“The doctor… He says you may leave when you are ready, but you have this”—he struggled to find the word—“commozione cerebrale,” he finally said in Italian. He pointed to his head. “You know, from falling?”
“A concussion?” It explained the killer headache. Cary lay back in the bed. He felt overwhelmed, defeated. He went to lift his hand to his face and the IV line caught on the edge of the bed.
“Sí. A concussion,” Antonio said as he freed the line for Cary. “He says you must not be alone tonight. Is there somewhere I can take you? A person who can look by you, then?”
There was no one. No family or close friends. He had no one, really, except his housekeeper, Roberta.
“If you wish, you may stay with me.”
Cary realized Antonio had guessed that he had no one to stay with him.
You shouldn’t be surprised. You look like street trash.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He knew he looked like one of the hustlers he sometimes paid for sex, and he wondered what kind of man would willingly take someone like that in, knowing nothing about him.
But then again, it’s not like someone with a broken wrist and a concussion would be a danger to a big guy like him.
He considered the offer for a moment. It wasn’t as if he had anything to fear from Antonio, either. The guy had brought him to the hospital, after all. The offer was far more tempting—no, make that Antonio was far more tempting—than asking his housekeeper to play nurse and mother.
“I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Not at all, Signor Taylor. It would be my pleasure.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Antonio said. Then, as if realizing why Cary might hesitate to accept the invitation of a complete stranger, he added, “But if you are not confortevole—ah, what is it?—comfortable with this, I think you can stay here longer. I will not be insulted.”
Was it any different to go home with a stranger for a night of fucking? Guys who come charging in on white horses don’t usually rape you the next day.
He closed his eyes and saw his mother’s face. She had predicted this. “You won’t be happy living that way, Cary,” she said when he came out to her. “It’s not natural. It’s a… perversion. It’s sinful. An addiction.”
He had defended himself. “I’m not a pervert, mom. This is me. This is who I am.”
“How can you say that, Cary Taylor Redding? How can you risk everything we’ve worked so hard for?”
Funny, how he’d starting cruising the bars to show her that he didn’t give a shit about what she thought. But he’d come to crave the sex, booze, and smokes. They satisfied a hunger which his music could not. She hadn’t wanted to listen, and in the end he’d just proven her right. He had lost the only thing that really mattered to him: his music.
It’s not forever. It’ll heal. The thought did little to allay his fear and he moaned softly.
“Are you all right?” That voice again. Right. Antonio.
“Sorry,” Cary said, embarrassed. “I guess I’m still a little sleepy.”
“It’s okay. I will ask about getting you to leave this place, and perhaps something for the pain. You must rest now.”
“Thank you.” Cary watched as Antonio pulled the covers back over him and walked out of the room. His white knight.
And you’re about as far from a princess as they come.[TN1]
A few hours later, having spoken with the doctor, Cary was released from the hospital with a bottle of pain killers and instructions to come back in six weeks to have the cast removed and begin physical therapy. While Antonio went to retrieve his car, Cary quickly provided the hospital staff with his home address. He was grateful that the police had taken him to a public hospital and that there was no bill to speak of for emergency patients. He wasn’t sure how he’d have felt if Antonio had insisted on paying for his stay.
Cary’s face was tense as they rode the elevator down to the ground floor. “This broken wrist,” Antonio said, perhaps sensingCary’s dark mood, “it will make it difficult for your work, no?”
“You could say that.” Impossible, really. He pushed the thought from his mind. He would get through this. He reminded himself again that the doctor had said his wrist would be fine, in a few months.
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m between jobs now.” The truth, although not the entire truth. It was late October, and his next gig was in Rome in four weeks. He had also been scheduled to teach a series of master classes in early December.
It could have been worse, he reminded himself as he climbed into Antonio’s car a few minutes later. A hell of a lot worse.
So why was his gut tense? He tried to focus on something else. It wasn’t that difficult. Antonio’s broad shoulders were an easy distraction.
Antonio’s apartment was nearly as big as Cary’s own. The high-ceilinged rooms were tastefully decorated in an eclectic mixture of modern Italian furniture and antiques. Photographs of smiling children and adults adorned the tabletops and bookshelves. From the abundance of blue eyes and blond hair, Cary guessed these were Antonio’s family.
“You look tired,” Antonio said as he shut the door behind them. “Perhaps I make dinner while you sleep?”
“Thanks.”Carycaught a glimpse of a large bed through a doorway to their right. He rubbed his arm above his broken wrist without thinking and winced. The dull ache had now become an angry throb.
“May I get you some pills? For your arm?” Antonio held up the doggie bag of chemicals that the hospital had sent home with him.
“That would be great.”
“Perhaps you like to use the telephone while I get it for you?”Carystared blankly at Antonio. “You know,” Antonio continued, “if there is a person who might…ah—” he struggled to find the word “—worry for you?”
“No,” Cary answered as understanding came. “I’m fine. There’s nobody.”
Worry about me? Other than a geezer of an agent and a brother halfway around the world?
Justin would care. In fact, he would worry a lot. They were brothers, after all. But Cary didn’t want to bother him and his family. And Georges, Cary’s agent, would have a cow when he learned that Cary had broken his wrist, but only because he’d need to cancel a few months of gigs while it healed. Yeah, he’d have to tell the idiot at some point, but why rush it?
He thought briefly of Roberta. She’s your housekeeper. What does she care if you stay away for a few nights? It’s not like you haven’t before. But he knew he was lying to himself—Roberta was far more than an employee. He’d call her after he’d had a chance to rest. He’d tell her he was spending the night out so she wouldn’t worry.
Something akin to compassion or pity, perhaps, flashed through Antonio’s eyes, but he said only, “Please. Use the bed. I will bring you the medicine.”
Carywas almost asleep when Antonio came back into the room with a glass of water and a few pills. “This will help with pain,” he toldCary. “I will arouse you when dinner is ready.”
“Mmm,” Cary murmured, repressing a grin in response to Antonio’s faulty turn of phrase. It wasn’t all that difficult to control himself, since he was damn near asleep already and his wrist hurt like hell. Still, the thought made for some very sweet dreams.
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