Daniel opened his bleary eyes to the mellifluous reverberation of his piano in the dark. It was a song he had not heard in a long time, but then, that was not the kind of music he usually played. He lifted his head to look at the bedside clock, which told him it was half-past three in the morning. Even through the closed door, the strain of the Elvis Presley ballad reached him distinctly, and he sat up, something inside him breaking when the simple notes did not sound right. The fingers went over the same keys again and again, faltering every time.
Amelia was not lying when she admitted to having lost her spark. That would explain the shadow under her eyes or the visible fatigue in her demeanour. It had been difficult to convince her to eat, and even after a shower and the medication, she seemed in pain. Later, behind the closed door, Daniel knew she had succumbed to the tears, too proud to display her weaknesses to him. It had taken him every ounce of restraint to not put down his book and check on her.
What man would want to inflict pain on a girl like her? Of course, someone vile and despicable. From what she had told him, Daniel could well understand that it had not started three months ago. People did not suddenly become abusive. She must have been enduring torment of some kind throughout the relationship, and every time he thought about it, he felt sick to the pit of his stomach. He could not imagine Amelia with such a man. She was an artist, a talent to reckon with. She needed and deserved an environment that allowed her to thrive.
He pricked his ears when the music stopped, plunging the house in silence again. Unable to stay put any longer, he reached for his robe. The parlour was dark except for a ray of streetlight streaming in through the drapes, but Daniel could clearly discern the shadowy figure at the piano, head bowed and shoulders quivering. She seemed too broken to appear startled when he turned on a light and gently held her.
“It’s okay to cry, just so you know.” He slowly turned her around to discover her tear-soaked face. “And I can tell that you’ve been doing too much of it lately.”
Amelia looked away and quickly tried to wipe her cheeks dry, but fresh tears continued to stream down her face, leaving stains on her dark blue night robe. Daniel pushed her hair back to study her countenance.
“Did I ever tell you what was the first thing about you that impressed me?” he asked. “Your ability to connect notes without using the pedal.”
She bowed her head, trying to hide the tears, but Daniel carried on regardless. “Your legato technique was flawless, and your left hand so strong when it came to repeated chords. It had taken me years to learn that, but you were a natural at it.”
“Stop,” she croaked, shaking her head. “Please stop.”
“Didn’t you hear? I couldn’t get a single note right. And it’s my favourite song.”
Daniel found her fingers. They were the most beautiful hands he had ever seen on any woman, delicate, graceful, and gifted. Whether she was turning the pages of a book or opening a door, there was no mistaking the elegance in those slender fingers. Despite the aloofness that had been one of her defining traits, she never failed to arouse envy in others. The girls in school had coveted her beauty and her lifestyle, wishing they could also wear fancy dresses and be a red-haired princess. Those comments would only make Daniel wish they had been blessed with a fragment of her talent or determination.
“Does playing the piano still make you happy?” he queried. It took her a long minute to form a response.
“If I can get it right.” She wiped her nose with the back of her palm. “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do in life.”
“Were you unmotivated before the abuse began?”
Amelia sucked in a wet, ragged breath. “Yes. Ever since…”
“Since you got into that relationship,” Daniel finished for her when she broke off. When she felt too ashamed to nod, he sighed.
“Passion was the hallmark of your character. You were a livewire, always sure of what you wanted. You played with your heart and soul, with every fibre of your being, charging the air, leaving everyone spellbound.” He left her hands. “I no longer see that passion in you.”
“I know,” she replied a tad angrily. “You don’t have to keep pointing it out.”
“I’m only trying to point out that making music should bring you joy. It’s not about living up to standards and expectations, or about proving yourself.”
He tilted her face with two fingers. “You proved yourself at the tender age of ten. The world fell at your feet like ninepins. You set the standards now, not play by them.”
Giving her hands a gentle tug, he jerked his head towards the stairs. “Come on. You need some fresh air.”
Amelia followed him up the stairs and down the small passageway until he was sliding open the door to the rooftop. The space was slightly larger than a master suite, guarded with steel railings on three sides and overlooking the neat little backyard. The sky was clear, and the softest breeze made the branches of the apple tree sway.
“This is my favourite place in the house,” Daniel said, briefly looking at the sky. “As dear to me as the study.”
“I can tell,” she replied, inhaling the smell of honeysuckle in the air. When he glanced at her, she was drawing circles on the special floor tiles with her toe. “You love to dance here, don’t you?”
“For the lack of a ballroom.” He smiled at a distant memory. “Remember your ballet classes in school?”
“Yes. I hated them.”
“You hated the rigidity. And the director.”
“Monique de la Fontaine.” Amelia walked over to the far end of the rooftop and leaned her elbows on the metal rails. “I have never met a more regressive woman in my life.”
“I still recall the look of shock and awe on her face on the day of your first and only ballet recital.” Daniel came up to stand next to her. “You had not attended her classes in eight years, never allowed dance to overshadow your love for the piano, and there you were, owning the stage with that complex fusion. You made every jaw drop with those leaps and turns in the air.”
“You cannot always be successful, mademoiselle, Monique said to me afterward. You have the need to fail.”
Her sigh was wry. “Look at me now. I have failed.”
“No, you haven’t.” Turning around, Daniel leaned back against the railing and stared at the top of the pine tree in the distance. “You were always a special girl, and you know why? Because you were self-made.”
He crossed his arms. “It was an expensive private academy where most students came from privileged backgrounds. I attended the same school, and I know my parents would never have been able to afford it without my full scholarship. You too had a scholarship, but what you had more was grit. You had no family, you grew up in foster care and did not even have a piano of your own. You practised at the train station, remember? It made you audacious, spirited.”
“Knowing you have nothing to lose does make you brave.”
“And what do you have to lose now?”
“Is there more dignity in tolerating a wrong than standing up against it?”
Daniel shook his head with a sigh. “Remember the first time I ever saw you, even before I tasted your musical genius? You had your nose deep into Atlas Shrugged. You wanted to know what I thought of Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism.”
Amelia nodded. “You said you found her to be fairly noxious and did not believe she was a talented writer,” she said. “You also found her theory pretty malignant and that her characters tended to be extraordinary, while the ordinary ones quickly disappeared from the narrative.”
“What you said in reply to that was more interesting,” he smiled. “You said that a just society requires a state that can protect the powerless from predation. Just because they do not need protection doesn’t mean society shouldn’t afford them that. You also said that a free actor must really have choices, going on to add that too many people do not have lives that allow them meaningful choices.”
He looked at her face. “It’s time you believed what you said that day,” Daniel murmured. “That we live in a society that is capable of protecting those who need it. That you are a free actor with several choices, but succumbing to violence isn’t one of them.”
“Wasn’t that the day you gave the class an impromptu lecture on why pop songs are obsessed with the word ‘tonight’?” Amelia overrode his comment. “It was insightful, even though I almost missed my bus.”
Daniel chuckled. “I was nearly late listening to your argument about the relevance of professional criticism in a media landscape overflowing with opinions. Or when you expressed your libertarian views, your thoughts on individual liberty, and how taxation was not theft.”
“Or the day when you shut up some of my classmates with a thorough explanation of the need for examinations in school, because they instill time management, the ability to process feedback, and help prepare us for the pressures and tests that life will throw at us later.”
“You always had such grace even when you disagreed with something.” He smiled fondly. “I remember how you lit up when you learned that I was a trained ballroom dancer.”
“I couldn’t believe that you were a three-time World Tango Championship winner. I knew I just had to get lessons the day you—”
She trailed off and looked away, her cheeks hot. “I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about it.”
“Why are you sorry?” He spoke through the sudden tightness in his throat. “I loved your company. And believe me, deep inside I never stopped considering you a friend.”
“I never talked with anyone else the way I did with you,” she admitted.
“I was honoured to have that trust.” He clasped his hands on the railing. “But you were young and vulnerable and I didn’t want to put you in a position that could jeopardise your budding career.”
“Pity you weren’t around to throw your discipline at me when I ended up with Jason.”
“But I’m here now, and I’m going to change your mind about all your ridiculous decisions.”
“They have their reasons.”
“I’m sure they do,” he pointed out. “I’ve seen the likes of you before. You think seeking help is weak and pretending to be strong will save the day. But abuse never stops. The more you stand up to him, the worse he will do to you. We make wrong choices in life, but no one deserves this.”
“The conservatoire will find out.” Her bottom lip trembled again. “Everyone will find out. I’ll lose my hard-earned place in life.”
“You’re not going to lose anything.” He moved her hair from her neck to look at her wound and hoped it would be better in a day or two. “Let me show you something. Come with me.”
He led her downstairs and took her to the piano. “Sit,” he said, gesturing at the bench. She reluctantly obliged. “Put your foot on the pedal,” he added, standing behind her and lowering himself to bring his arms down to hers. Their bodies touched and Amelia held her breath as his scent filled her nostrils, taking her back to the old music room, where they often shared close physical proximity. Her hands trembled as his breath ghosted her neck.
“Place your hands on top of mine,” he directed, his fingers on the keys. She did as asked, and the contact made a shiver run down her spine.
“Let your fingers move along with mine.” His voice had turned a shade richer as he spoke next to her ear. Amelia followed his lead, letting her hands move with his, from the F chord to the B chord and back, from half steps to full steps, from sharps to flats. The melody of Can’t Help Falling in Love filled the house, cloaked her senses and rose through her like a storm, even as his fingers continued to glide across the keys. She was a little girl when she learned to play that song, and it quickly became her favourite. The disappointment of having to learn it again broke her heart, and she bit her lip to smother a sob.
“Shh… no more crying.” Daniel stopped and withdrew his hands, resting them on her shoulders. “Here, look at me.”
He held her when she rose to her feet, tears trickling down her tired face. Her beauty had always been haunting. Quiet and mysterious, as though hiding something behind those brilliant green eyes. It gave her an air of enigma, both intimidating and alluring. As a girl, he had rarely seen her engage in fun and games with friends. In her spare time, she would either be found in the library or the music room, deep in her own world, often detached from the surroundings. But her unflinching personality was gone, and it pained him to see her defeated because of a man.
“Listen to me, very carefully,” he began. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve endured for the last several months, but now that I know the truth, I will not let you get hurt again.”
“Dan…” She looked up at him. “You’re letting the boundaries erode.”
“I know what I am doing. If boundaries need to be broken in order to save someone’s life, so be it.”
“No,” he commanded. “I’m doing the talking here and you will listen. First things first. Change the lock of your flat.”
“What if they object?” she asked.
“Then change the apartment. There’s no dearth of places to live.” He took a deep breath. “Next, you are going to practise with me five days a week for the next three months until your finals and the world premiere. It can either be at your house or mine, and I’ll attend to you once my work is over. Is that clear?”
“You don’t give private lessons.”
“I’m not giving you lessons. I’m only helping a lost soul find its passion again.” He smiled down into her eyes. “You and I go back a long way, Mel. Please let me help you, for old times’ sake.”
“You don’t have to do this,” she warned.
“I wouldn’t have turned up at your house, or tended to your wounds, or been this close to taking you to the police if I didn’t care,” he replied. “If you remember the kind of person I am, you should realise that it’s impossible for me to not take action when something so wrong is happening to you.”
“I don’t want the conservatoire to get involved,” she implored him. “Please.”
“I promise no one besides you and I will be privy to this. But I also need you to promise me something.” He frowned, his lips a straight line. “You will never think or talk about dropping out again.”
“There’s only three months’ time…”
“That’s right. And I will have you ready before then.” He held a hand out in front of her. “Is that a deal, Ms Cavenham?”
Amelia hesitated, unsure of making a promise she could not keep. Daniel was offering his support without being asked, and if there was anyone who knew her better than herself, it was him.
Slowly, she gave her hand in his. “Yes, sir,” she nodded, bracing for whatever was to come.