The heavy breathing sounded eerie in the dark living room. Amelia closed her eyes when she felt it against her neck, hot and intoxicated. It made her head swim, her feet unsteady.
“You still haven’t paid me this week.” The snuffle was followed by the clink of glass against metal. From over her shoulder, she saw him lift the bottle to his mouth, guzzling noisily until there was nothing left. “How many times do I have to remind you?”
“We broke up two months ago.” She turned around to face him, the damp clothes and fear freezing her body. “You are not my boyfriend anymore, Jason. There’s nothing between us.”
The laugh in response curdled her blood. Amelia took two steps back when his hand tightened around the beer bottle.
“You remember our deal, right?” He inched closer, the sandy head of hair glistening in the streak of streetlight. “You stop paying me and I add to your collection of bruises.”
“I’m not giving you any more of my money,” she explained slowly. “All you do is get drunk with it.”
She did not see the slap until she was stumbling backwards, the sharp sting burning like red, hot coals. Her hand moved to her cheek, even as she was roughly grabbed and pinned against her console piano. He brutally squeezed her arms and through the pain, she tried her best to not scream. It would only add fuel to his rage.
“You’re talking back at me now, are you?” His mouth was contorted, his eyes bloodshot. “What a change, babygirl. Is it because of the new man in your life?”
“Let me go,” she stuttered, wiggling to free herself from the savage grip. He released her and she tried to run, but there was nowhere to hide. She staggered against the piano, sending sheets of music fluttering across the room.
“Is that why you refused to get back together?” he hissed, towering over her. “Because you already have someone new?”
Her ability to speak was robbed by the slap that followed, pinning her face to the cold wood of the piano. “It took you no time to get over me!” A fist accompanied the roar, then another, pistoning her to the floor. Amelia gasped, her vision blackening, as though she had been stabbed with a knife. She wailed noiselessly, the pain rising from her lower back and spreading across her stomach. The last time he had done that, she spent the night vomiting blood.
She bit her lip when she was yanked back to her feet. “I want my money,” he wrung her face, the muscles of his jaw throbbing. Amelia jerked free and pushed him away, reaching for the wall.
“It isn’t your money, Jason,” she shook her head. “And you’re not getting any of it.”
The bottle came flying at her, and she ducked just in time, collapsing onto the floor and hitting the corner of her forehead on the hard ceramic. The bottle lay in shards around her, sparkling in the faint light streaming in through the window. Her head spun but she felt the trickle of blood only when she tasted it on her lips.
“Bitch.” A boot kicked into the side of her stomach and she resisted the urge to cry out. The pain was piercing like a razor, shooting up her chest. “That’s what you are. A filthy slut.”
There were sounds of her flat being ransacked, but she could not move. Could not breathe. She lay still on the floor, letting the world disappear into a black hole.
Daniel entered the practice room and stopped short to find his student absent. It had been a hectic day, starting with his first public masterclass of the season in the lead-up to the conservatoire’s summer music festival in June, followed by three interviews, and a meeting with the piano committee regarding the annual festival lineup. The centrepiece of the event was going to be his rare performance of Ligeti’s piano concerto, a recital he was looking forward to. Besides the masterclasses, the summer series would also feature Schubert’s late sonatas and various multimedia collaborations, and the world premiere of Amelia Cavenham’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
But where was she?
He checked the time on his watch. It was his last class before the weekend and he had been anticipating the individual session with Amelia, to have a first-hand taste of her incredible maturity as a musician at such a young age and hopefully change her mind about her decision.
Students dropped out for several reasons. But she was not just another student. She was a prodigy, a jewel in the academy’s crown, an expert at both classical and contemporary music. She had owned some of the biggest music competitions since she was all of ten, performed at the most hallowed venues across the globe, and given older, more experienced musicians a run for their money. That year, she had been commissioned for a unique arrangement of Jeunehomme for her Carnegie Hall concert in July, and another for her recital with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. She was the epitome of precocious talent. Letting her go would be such a loss for the conservatoire, for the world.
Turning around, he started walking back to his office while scrolling through the contacts on his phone. Halfway down the stairs, he was met by one of the piano professors.
“I was about to call you,” Daniel said to Timothy Martin. “Have you seen Amelia today at all?”
“No.” The lean, grey-blonde man shook his head. “Mr Freeman-Atwood wants to talk to you about that. Ms Dankworth and Mr Harvest are in his office.”
Daniel followed him to the principal’s office, knowing well how the discussion would go and already feeling helpless. Tilda Dankworth used to be his classmate back in the day when they were students at the academy. Tall with sleek brown hair and large, round glasses, she was soft-spoken and fond of her students. When Daniel entered the room, she sounded concerned about Amelia’s disappearances.
“She’s the brightest we’ve had in a long time,” Ms Dankworth said to the principal and the other professor in the room, Oscar Harvest. “And we are known for producing the creme de la creme of musicians. But if there’s any pianist who can match Dr McGraw’s genius, it’s Amelia.”
“Please.” Daniel walked over to the window, sliding his hands inside his pockets. “This isn’t about talent or genius. That girl looks troubled. Does anyone know what could be wrong?”
“Did you talk to her?” The principal asked.
“I tried,” he answered with a sigh, his gaze focused on the garden. “She’s as stubborn as always. Trying to get a word out of her is like pulling teeth.”
“She’s missing classes all the time,” Ms Dankworth said. “It’s been over three months and I’m afraid it’s growing worse.”
“She was not at your masterclass today, was she?” Mr Harvest asked Daniel. When he shook his head, the principal leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“I called her to my office the other day and tried to unravel what was going on,” he said. “Daniel is right. She wouldn’t say anything.”
“It’s such a shame.” Ms Dankworth lamented. “She’s such a smart, rational, even-tempered girl. You can put her in any situation and she will shimmy her way out with her charisma and elegance.”
“Summer is almost here and we have concerts lined up.” Mr Harvest folded his hands under his nose, a scowl of worry on his forehead. “She is indeed the most remarkable musician we have seen since Dr McGraw. She’s carrying our music festivals, the recitals, the seminars–“
“Wait a minute.” Daniel raised a hand. “Are we only concerned about this situation because we need Amelia for our professional gain?”
The people in the room recoiled. “I… I did not imply that,” Mr Harvest quietly amended. “But if she really backs out of the concerts–“
“Have you even looked at her lately?” Daniel exclaimed. “She seems dead. How can she carry the concerts when she barely looks capable of carrying her own life?”
Collecting himself as quickly as he had snapped, he inhaled deeply. “I’m going home,” he announced. “I’ll try to talk to her again and let you know if anything changes.”
He wished them a good night and a nice weekend, and walked out of the office, his mind racing as he strode down the hallway. Later, he sat in his car for several minutes, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel while gathering his thoughts. Then, with a determined nod, he started his car and headed for Brixton.
“You looking for anyone, sir?” The middle-aged gent spoke with a cigarette between his teeth. Daniel was in front of the building he was almost sure Amelia lived in, but did not feel confident about going up the stairs only to find the wrong house. The man who had just spoken to him was probably the owner of the used books store on the ground floor.
“Yes.” He cleared his throat and turned towards him. “You don’t happen to know a red-haired girl who lives around here, do you? Small, quiet, green eyes, plays the piano.”
“Sure I do.” The man smiled, before pointing up the stairs. “Right there. That’s her flat.”
Daniel followed his finger, relieved to know that he had been looking at the right house. “Thank you,” he gave him a grateful smile and carefully walked upstairs, until he was in front of the blue door. He knocked, wondering why a gifted, renowned musician with four scholarships would want to live there. He was twenty-three when he had bought his house. Amelia was around the same age now with the same level of success and could easily afford a better dwelling.
Two minutes later, the door had not opened. He knocked again, listening for any sounds inside and wondering if she was home. Just as he had lifted his hand to knock again, the door unlocked, slowly scraping open. A hooded face appeared through the crack, surprised eyes widening in recognition.
Daniel’s gaze rolled across the oversized sweatshirt and the pair of joggers, noting the almost imperceptible shivers wracking her form. When he stepped forward, she instinctively moved away to take cover behind the door, her face hanging low.
“Sorry about turning up unannounced,” he said, crossing his arms. “But you weren’t at the masterclass and I was getting worried about you.”
“I’m sorry.” Her hands, firmly lodged inside the pockets of her sweatshirt, trembled. “Something came up and…”
“Are you alright?” He took a step towards her, and she shifted again, faltering in the process. Daniel slipped a hand in through the gap in the door and lightly held her elbow. “Look at me, Amelia. I’m talking to you.”
“I’m fine.” She turned her face away and slowly walked out onto the landing, closing the door behind her. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
When she swayed unsteadily, Daniel held her arms, being momentarily taken aback as she winced in pain. Frowning, he tried to look at her face, hidden behind a mess of copper hair. He cupped her chin and examined her profile. Despite the hair and the large hood, she could not hide the gash on the forehead or the purple bruise on her cheek or the deep cut down the side of her neck. His heart dropped.
“What happened to you?” he gasped, unable to hide the horror. Amelia scrunched her eyes, the shivers growing stronger.
“You don’t have to know.”
“You look like a trainwreck,” he exclaimed. “You’re going to tell me you fell again?”
His suspicions strengthened when she did not answer. Daniel touched her shoulder, physically recoiling when she whimpered. That was the last straw.
“Come with me,” he adjured, nodding down the stairs. When she shook her head, he let out an exasperated sigh.
“If you think I’ll leave you in this condition, you’re very mistaken. You need medical attention. Come on. We’ll go to the hospital.”
“I had first aid.”
“Did you? I can see your wounds are still raw and gaping.” He clenched his jaw. “Who did this to you?”
“I don’t want anyone to know.” The tears were brimming over when she finally looked up to meet his eye. “Don’t do that to me.”
“Who is it?” he repeated in a quiet voice. “Those aren’t injuries from a fall. Only a fool would believe that.”
Her eyes lowered again, a teardrop spilling onto the ground. When she remained silent, it took him a second to make up his mind.
“Come with me.” Taking her hand, he gently tugged her. “I’m taking you home.”
The parlour of the southwest London home was vast. On one end of the room was the reading corner, complete with wall-to-wall cases displaying a stunning selection of vinyl records, and books on history, science, art, politics, literature, and music. It was not surprising, given this was the house of an eminent pianist, who was also a curator and amateur historian. On the other end was the nine-feet Steinway grand piano, a vintage from 1917 and the only one of its kind. It was the same instrument that had come up many a time in their conversations in the past, rousing her curiosity and fascination. But never in her wildest imagination had Amelia dreamed of being at Dr Daniel McGraw’s residence, at least not under the present circumstances.
Her thoughts wandered when something cold and stinging touched her forehead. She flinched, crying out against her will.
“Shh. Don’t be afraid.” Daniel’s voice was soft, but there was no missing the sardonicism. “If you can endure being thrown against the wall, then a little antiseptic shouldn’t be that bad.”
“Dan…” she breathed, her fingers involuntarily clutching the edge of the sofa when he shifted attention to her neck. On their way to his house, she had told him about last night, having not enough courage to deny those blazing eyes. His first response was to go to the police, and when she protested, the displeasure was evident from his steely grip on the wheel.
“Don’t.” His gloved hand reached for the bandage and the roll of gauze. “How long has this been going on?”
Amelia tried to be comfortable against the cushions but the movement made the pain worse. “About three months,” she replied. “I broke up with him when it started but…”
“Did you seek help?” He asked, then laughed at his own question. “Of course you didn’t.”
She said nothing. Her gaze settled on the renaissance painting above the mantle in an attempt to distract her mind while he deftly dressed her wound with the bandage. Certain places inside her still pulsed with pain, and although she had vomited after Jason left, there had not been any blood in it.
“How did he get into your flat?” he asked, wrapping the gauge around her head and tying a knot at the side. Amelia was already regretting discussing this with him. He was her mentor. If he knew, so would everyone else at the academy. “Does he still have a spare key?”
When she nodded, Daniel looked disappointed. “What does your lease say about changing door locks?”
“You really shouldn’t get into this…” she warned quietly.
“Look, you’re being abused.” A long strip of medical adhesive bandage was pressed to the cut on her neck. “Physically, mentally, financially. And you show no sign of doing anything about it. I’m sure this isn’t the first time. How on earth did you end up with someone like that?”
Closing her eyes, Amelia drew in a shuddering breath. “I’ve made some wrong choices in life.”
“Quitting the academy will certainly be one of them.” Daniel rose from the sofa and gave a shake of his head. “Is this why you want to leave?”
She rested her head against the back of the sofa, the pain making her temples throb. “Remember when I was in school and everyone said I was a genius at the piano?” she murmured. “I guess… I no longer have it in me .”
“You have fifteen ballads, three sonatas, and several fusion tracks to your name,” he reminded her. “All musicians sometimes face creative blocks—”
“I haven’t got a note right in the last several weeks!” Angry tears pricked the back of her eyes. “Each night I sit at the piano hoping to finish my concerto but only cry into the morning. It’s like my fingers and my mind don’t cooperate anymore. They just don’t…”
She covered her mouth with a hand, her shoulders quivering to the sobs. Daniel discarded the gloves and returned to the sofa. Amelia moved back, lifting a hand in front of her face.
“I’m not a genius,” she choked out. “I’m not like you, with entire compositions perfected inside my head even before they are written down. I can’t even play other people’s compositions anymore. How am I supposed to come up with my own music?”
“I cannot afford to fail at the finals. If I don’t quit, I’ll make a mess of the recital and be a disappointment.”
“Failure is nothing to be ashamed of. But giving up is cowardice.” He left the sofa for a minute and came back with a box of tissues. She accepted it with weak fingers. “Where is the gutsy girl I used to know?”
“You said I wasn’t the same girl, didn’t you?”
“You are stressed and troubled.” His eyes raked over her face as she wiped her nose. Her forehead wound was not deep enough to require stitches, but the bruise on her cheek had not faded even after the cold compression. His blood boiled. Men did not hit a woman. It was common decency.
“I would have said it’s nice to see you again,” he forced a small smile, uncuffing his shirt sleeves to roll them up. “But it isn’t nice to see you like this.”
“You never wanted to see me again,” she rectified with a snort. “Isn’t that why you left?”
Daniel moved away from her on the sofa and sighed. “You know what was going on,” he said. “You were sixteen and turning into a young woman and it wasn’t unnatural for a girl of your age to be enamoured with someone like me. It isn’t surprising for students to sometimes be infatuated with a teacher, but we know how to laugh it off.”
“You didn’t laugh me off, though.”
His chest tightened as he rose to his feet. Even without trying, he could recall every moment with pristine clarity. With Amelia in front of him again, the memories were uncomfortably real. He turned his back to the sofa, running a hand through his raven hair.
“You were different,” he admitted with quiet hesitation. “You were not remotely like any other teenager. I was the director of music at your school for years but before I met you, I had no idea that a girl that young could be so mature or so knowledgeable. The kind of wisdom you brought to the table… it seemed you were an old woman trapped inside a young body. You were mentally stimulating. It never felt like talking to a kid.”
“I wasn’t a kid,” she snapped, her eyes trained on his back. The contours of his lean muscles were pronounced through the white shirt. He obviously took care of himself. As a renowned pianist and conductor who travelled the world, he needed to be in shape. Besides, age had done him good.
“Yes, you were.” He looked at her over his shoulder. “You were a kid who didn’t know any better and I was a married man, who incidentally happened to be your teacher. I tried to gently discourage you, give you subtle hints that it wasn’t right, but you kept trying harder.”
“So you pushed me away.”
“I had no other choice, Mel.” Turning around, he narrowed his eyes at her. “That was the only time I wished you didn’t have such confidence. You had no care about the consequences of what you were doing. You didn’t fear anything. As a responsible adult, I had to protect you from yourself. If you ended up doing something stupid, you weren’t the only one who could have been hurt.”
Daniel paused, closing his eyes to gather some of his control. When he opened them, Amelia was staring at her hands, absently twisting a tissue. She did not look up when he sat next to her.
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Sliding an arm across the back of the sofa, he lowered his face. “But you were an innocent and I was an adult and I would have never betrayed that trust. Your future, my reputation, our respective careers… everything would have been at stake.”
“I thought you liked me.”
“I did, because in all the years that I’ve been in this profession, I’m yet to meet a better musician than you.” He looked away, his temples pulsing. “But it was only paternal affection and pride. And I could not let you take advantage of my admiration for you and turn it into something inappropriate.”
“Take advantage? I never–“
“You did,” he countered. “You were not naïve. Your intentions were very clear, even though in the eyes of the world you were just an adolescent and I had a wife and a child, and it was all very wrong.”
Gently holding her chin, he turned her face towards him. “Do you know what would have happened if anyone ever saw the signs?” he hissed, staring into her eyes. “It would have been abuse of a position of trust. It’s illegal and you had the audacity to even think that you could make a man of integrity like me go down that path.”
Amelia’s lips curved wryly. “You must really hate me.”
“If there’s anyone I hate at this moment, it’s the monster who has been doing this to you.” He put away the box of tissues and held her hand. “There’s no use talking about the past. We should live in the present and deal with the problem you’re in right now.”
“How?” she whispered.
“By calling the police.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want the academy to know.”
“The conservatoire has a strict domestic violence policy. And I’m your new head of piano. It’s my responsibility to ensure my students aren’t getting hurt at the hands of another person.”
His eyes travelled to his watch. “Are you hungry? It’s almost dinner time.”
“I should leave.”
“You’re barely able to walk. If that scoundrel comes back to hound you tonight…” The thought made Daniel shiver. People died from such instances. “I’d be more relieved if you stayed here for the night,” he suggested.
The surprise on Amelia’s face was barely hidden. “I cannot,” she screeched. “You know I cannot… I shouldn’t…”
“It will not be a problem. It’s the weekend and I’m going to drop you home in the morning. I also have two spare bedrooms, so you’ll be comfortable. Now…” He stood, and offered her a hand. “…I’ll run you a bath, and you’ll eat some food before you take any pain relief medication.”
“A bath?” She groaned softly as she pulled herself to her feet. When she swayed unsteadily, Daniel hesitated before holding her arms, loath to cause her more pain.
“A warm bath will help soothe the soreness and discomfort,” he said. “Don’t be embarrassed, please. I’m the only one here, and I’m no stranger to you. Make yourself comfortable while I run the bath and get started on dinner.”
“I’m not hungry,” she muttered, shifting her weight between her feet as though the floor was on fire.
“But you need to line your stomach before you take strong meds. And you do need medication.”
“You’re not my doctor,” she frowned up at him.
“Yes, I am your doctor now and you will listen to me, young lady.” He threw his head back and laughed, the warm sound reverberating in the room. Amelia took in a deep breath, failing to ignore the effect he still had on her. When his laughter faded, leaving just the hint of a smile at the corner of his lips, she met his eyes. His intent gaze made it impossible for her to form words.
She had always known Daniel McGraw as a sincere and benevolent person, extending his warmth and kindness to everyone. He had made her the musician she was, but after all that time, standing in front of him broken and defeated was no less painful than a physical blow. The thought made her eyes well up again.
“Thank you,” she nodded, swallowing back the surge of emotions.
The heavy breathing sounded eerie in the dark living room. Amelia closed her eyes when she felt it against her neck, hot and intoxicated. It made her head swim, her feet unsteady.