The crowd at the student café was thin, unlike other afternoons. Thunderous rain pelted against the glass wall at the end of the row of empty tables, blurring the stunning views of the Strand and drowning the ambient music playing through the speakers. Amelia stared into her cup of coffee, the sound of the rumbling sky and blinding downpour ringing in her ears as her fingertips unconsciously tapped along to the piano. It had been a long day, the blazing sun giving way to dark, twisting clouds in the buildup to the storm, and even as she walked to the café, the first raindrops had started to turn the cobbled streets into a warren of slick stones.
Missing classes was uncharacteristic of her. But for the third day in a row, she had left college early and taken refuge in the restaurant or the bar on campus, spending hours with her own thoughts until closing time. With the rain herding everyone home in a hurry, finding a quiet corner had been easier than usual today. Her eyes closed to the rhythm of the music creating a symphony together with the rain.
“I still recall the day you first played that song.”
Amelia’s fingers stopped at the sound of the low, rich voice, her body stiffening. Her eyes snapped open as the bentwood chair on the other side of the table scraped and a suited male figure sat across from her. Long, wiry fingers laced on the polished wooden surface. They were the same as she remembered from six years ago, the absence of the ring the only marked difference.
“I used to pride myself on being unbiased.” The words were spoken slowly in the smoothest accent she had ever heard. “Until that afternoon in the music room, when I heard you delivering the most confident rendition of the Moonlight Sonata. Unlike any other sixteen-year-old I’d ever met.”
Lifting her eyes, Amelia risked a glance at the man in front of her. The signs of middle-age were subtle. Greying sideburns, a few creases on the forehead. But those eyes were unchanged, even with the crow’s feet at the corners. They were the deepest shade of earth, mimicking precious stones of onyx in the soft light of the café. She had never seen such dark eyes with so much light in them, at once wise and ungodly, commanding respect and promising consequences if defied.
Music maestro Daniel McGraw was often called the present-day Mozart, with the soul of a poet and eyes of a devil. It was an exaggeration by no means.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said quietly, her gaze lowering into the coffee that had gone cold.
“I’m the head of piano here, Ms Cavenham, and I can be where I want to,” he rejoindered. “Why are you hiding here?”
“I’m only waiting for the rain to recede.”
“You’re not. You missed your chamber music class yesterday and also didn’t turn up for the Analysis and Aural class with me today.” Broad shoulders leaned forward on the table. “I was notified by Mr Martin that you’re planning to drop out. Is it true?”
She filled her chest with air. “Mr Martin wouldn’t lie, would he?”
A gruff laugh spilled from him. “Tell me you aren’t serious? This is the oldest conservatoire in the world with a ten per cent acceptance rate. No one lucky and merited enough to get a chance will want to drop out.” His breath echoed in the brief silence that followed, his fingers unclasping. “You are the most prodigious young pianists in the country. Do you have any idea how shocked everyone is?”
“I’m sorry.” Amelia closed her eyes. “I didn’t intend to shock anyone.”
His hand inched closer to meet hers. The contact made her body tingle with awareness, just the way it had all those years ago. She pulled away, folding her arms around herself.
“I should go.” She reached for her bag on the floor, leaving the coffee untouched as she rose to her feet and rounded the table. Firm fingers wrapped around her wrist, and Amelia shrank on the spot, suddenly reminded of the strength in those sinewy hands.
“Mel…” The voice softened, turned empathetic. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t call me that.” Her skin prickled with unwelcome memories. “Please… I should go.”
“I was asked to talk to you.” Daniel rose from the chair, letting go of her hand. “I received word from your teachers that your performance has been sliding recently. You’re the only student in the past five years to get a full scholarship. This is highly unexpected of you.”
He slid his hands inside the pockets of his trousers. “I may have been head of the department for only two weeks now, but I’ve known you long enough to recognise something isn’t right.”
“How does it concern you if I drop out?”
“No student of mine has ever dropped out of college, let alone only three months before graduation.” He shook his head with a frustrated sigh. “Come to my office. We need to have a talk.”
Amelia glanced at the pouring rain. “I really should leave before the weather becomes worse.”
“It’s bad enough already.” His gaze momentarily followed hers, before settling on the top of her rich copper head. “Do you have a bike?”
“No. I usually take the bus.”
“The Aldwych station? I don’t think you can make it there without getting soaked to your skin.”
Taking a fortifying breath, she nodded. “It’s alright. I don’t mind it so much.”
“Let me drop you home,” he offered.
“Dr McGraw—” she began.
“Dan.” He amended with quiet emphasis. “I’m parked outside. Follow me.”
“I’m only giving you a ride home when it’s rough out.” Tilting his head to the side, he squinted at her. “What are you afraid of? A possessive boyfriend who wouldn’t like to see you with another man?”
The mild panic in her green eyes did not go unnoticed. Since the time he was her high school director of music, Daniel had known Amelia as a smart, spunky girl without any trace of fear or reluctance. She was a brilliant student, talented and precocious with a mind of her own, the precise reason why he had enjoyed her company more than anyone else’s.
The news that their brightest student was planning to drop out mere months ahead of the finals had been quite a blow. And Daniel realised the confusion on her face had something to do with it.
“We must have that talk,” he announced, taking her hand and leading her out of the restaurant.
At four in the evening, the streets looked dark as the night in the deluge. Buses were few and far in between, the rain threatened to wash out the pavements, and the slow traffic drove most home-bound people to the Underground. Daniel glanced at the young woman in the passenger side and found her staring single-mindedly at the wipers, her fingers working of their own accord on the edge of the seat, as though tapping invisible keys in perfect cadence. It was a tic he had noticed the first time he met her, just as he had noticed her small hands and beautiful fingers, which some would call unsuitable for playing the piano. The gutsy girl that she was, it had taken her little time to rise above the doubts and prove her detractors wrong.
In his illustrious career of over two decades, Daniel had mentored several young musicians, who had later gone on to make waves around the world. But he had not managed to shake off the impression Amelia had left on him, despite his rash decision to give up his position at one of the most prestigious London schools only to be able to distance himself from the then-teenager. Having her at the conservatoire was unsurprising; she was deserving in every possible way. He felt like a fool to have not expected their paths to cross again.
“Where am I going?” he finally decided to speak. Amelia abruptly withdrew her fingers and blinked, suddenly aware of her surroundings.
“Poets Corner.” She raised a hand to wipe the condensation from the window. “It’s still a few minutes away.”
“You live in Brixton now?”
“I have since I started at the conservatoire.”
“And what’s making you quit?” he asked.
“My reasons are my own.”
“The conservatoire wants to help you, Mel. Every student is important to us. We might be able to provide a solution if you tell us why you want to quit so close to the completion of your course.”
“That will require you to break the boundaries you set between us.” She stared at the rain-soaked traffic through the foggy window, her head resting against the back of the seat. “You wouldn’t want to do that.”
“The academy wants me to take the initiative since I’ve been your teacher in the past and worked directly with you.” He paused at a red light with streams of vehicles in front of him. “I’m not going to let them down or allow you to do the same. You do understand that dropping out will hurt your career, right?”
She did not answer. Once the traffic had cleared, Daniel brought the car to a stop by the side of the road. Amelia looked up with a frown.
“Why did we stop?”
“You have to tell me what is wrong,” he sighed. “Please?”
“You cannot do anything,” she said, her voice turning throaty. He unfastened his seat belt and moved closer, reaching for her hands. His eyes narrowed when the sleeve of her dress rode up to reveal a nasty bruise on her arm, dark and purple and still somewhat raw.
He held tight when she tried to pull back. “If this was then,” he prodded. “If you were still sixteen and hanging out with me and treating me like a friend, would you have told me?”
“This isn’t then.” Withdrawing her hands, she gathered them in her lap, her eyes downcast. “Can I just go home, please?”
“What happened to your arm?”
“I…” She swallowed hard. “I fell in the bathroom.”
“That doesn’t look like a bruise from a fall.” He perused her face. “You have dark circles under your eyes. Your cheeks are sunken. Is there a problem that you’re trying to hide by dropping out? If there is, then you certainly need help.”
When she offered no response, Daniel moved away and breathed out a noisy exhale. “It isn’t me, is it?” His query evinced hesitance. “I know we didn’t expect to work with each other again but—”
“I’m not that timid,” she riposted, clutching her bag with both hands. “You were the one who ran away, not I.”
“So you do realise it was because of you that I needed to leave,” he said on a low snicker. “I had to get away from you, or it would have doomed both of us.”
“And why are you trying to help me now?”
“Because things aren’t the same anymore and there’s obviously something not right with you.” Re-fastening his seatbelt, he started the car again. “You aren’t the same girl who had left me, a world-renowned concert soloist, speechless. I’ve watched while I was the visiting professor and also over the two weeks that I’ve been the head of the department. You haven’t been at your best.”
“Right,” she nodded, tucking back the long bangs behind her ear. Even without looking, she could see him shaking his head.
“A little creative block and you’re giving up?” he posed. “Now who’s being timid?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this,” she muttered, watching familiar territory coming up. “That’s it. You can drop me here.”
Daniel wordlessly halted, watching the noisy, crowded neighbourhood, dotted with restaurants and stores. Amelia reached for the door, pausing to take a look at him.
“Thanks,” she murmured, sliding her bag across her shoulder and stepping out into the rain. The flat she had been living in for the last three years was located above a small, half-price bookstore on a busy intersection. It was a tiny space that she rented with the money from the two scholarship she had, and although the noise was not ideal for her musical endeavours, she did not have much choice. She entered the living room with her dress damp from the rain and kicked off her shoes.
“Who is he?”
The low, sullen voice made her freeze. It was a familiar voice, one that she had known for close to a year. One that she did not want to hear any longer. Her pulse quickened, her hands curling around the skirt of her dress.
“Jason,” she breathed, without turning around. “What are you doing here?”