Daniel opened his bleary eyes to the mellifluous reverberation of his piano wafting 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 night. Even through the closed door, the strain 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 talked about spending each night at her piano, crying. 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 the bath and the medication, she had seemed in pain. Later, not long after the door of the guest bedroom shut, he had heard the sobs, as though she was tired of hiding it and was resigning to her current state. The crying had gone on for hours and taken him every ounce of restraint to not put his book away and go over to comfort 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. In the silence, he heard a whimper, and he was reaching for his robe in an instant, unable to stay put any longer. 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.
“Did I ever tell you what was the first thing about you that impressed me?” He slowly turned her around and moved the fallen hair from her tear-soaked face. Amelia continued to sob, her eyes bloodshot and her nose swollen. “Your ability to connect notes without using the pedal.”
She turned her face, hiding it behind her hands, 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.”
Allowing his hands to slide down the sleeves of her robe, he 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. But when the girls in school were coveting her beauty, he wished they had a fragment of her talent.
“Does playing the piano still make you happy, Mel?” he asked. It took her a long minute to form a response.
“I’m not sure.” She wiped her nose with the back of her palm. “I’m not sure of anything at this point.”
“Were you unmotivated before the abuse began?”
Amelia sucked in a wet, ragged breath. “Yes.”
“Since you got into that relationship?”
“When you have all the answers, why ask me?”
“Because 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 and held up her face. “I no longer see that passion in you.”
“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do…”
“And you are… you will. But it isn’t anymore about what makes you happy. It’s only about living up to standards and expectations, about proving yourself.”
“I shouldn’t try to prove myself?” she asked incredulously.
“No, because you already have.” He held her hands again. “Take me, for instance. Do I perform to prove my merit or abide by set standards?”
“I’m no match for you. I’m a novice and you are—”
“Novice?” he laughed. “You’re one of the youngest musicians ever commissioned to perform at the BBC Proms or the Salzburg Festival. A novice doesn’t get to perform on such eminent platforms.”
Giving her hands a gentle tug, he jerked his head towards the sofa. “Come. Sit with me.”
Amelia followed him to the sectional, silent tears trickling down her cheeks. Daniel sat beside her, staring at her sunken face.
“Do you know what was so special about you?” he cooed. “You were self-made. Most girls in your school came from privileged backgrounds. But 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. Hey, look at me.”
He patted her cheek with two fingers, and she raised her face but not her eyes. “Do you remember the long conversation we once had about Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism?”
Wiping the tears from her face, she nodded. “You said you found her to be fairly noxious and did not believe she was a talented writer,” she spoke in a hoarse voice. “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 the 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.”
For the first time in two weeks, he saw a small smile bloom on her lips. She leaned back in the sofa, giving him a tentative glance. “Yeah, I did ramble, didn’t I?” she said. “I remember you said that you were a strong civil libertarian, and then we had a long discussion on liberty and how taxation is not theft.”
“Right,” he nodded. “Those weren’t the types of conversations I’d ever expect to have with a schoolgirl, but that’s what made you different. You talked like an adult. You had strong opinions on everything and they were very, very riveting.”
“Wasn’t that the day I found out you were a trained dancer and could do everything from a waltz to a tango?” Her face lit up briefly. “I hated my ballet lessons and when you introduced me to the sensuality of ballroom dance…”
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 liked to spend time with you. Not as a teacher but as a friend. I did tell you several times that I loved your company.”
“I wasn’t trying to take advantage of the situation,” she admitted.
“I know. We are often helpless against the onslaught of feelings or hormones. Or both.” He took her hand and gave it a soft squeeze. “I never faulted you or blamed you for what happened. You were young and vulnerable and I didn’t want you to do anything that you’d regret forever.”
“I did do something that I soon regretted.” Her eyes were glistening when she looked at him. “Being with Jason.”
“You’re not with him anymore,” he shook his head. “I guess you haven’t sought help because you’re trying to be strong and stand up to him instead of cowering. But abuse never stops, Mel. The more you stand up to him, the worse he will do to you. Seeking help is not a weakness. We make wrong choices in life but no one deserves this.”
“I don’t know what to do.” Her bottom lip trembled. “I don’t want this to affect my career but it already is…”
“You’re only twenty-two. This isn’t the age to give up.” He moved her hair from her neck to look at her wound and hoped it would be better in the morning. “Let me show you something. Come with me.”
He led her to the piano and made her sit on the stool. “Put your foot on the pedal,” he said, standing behind her and lowering himself to bring his arms to her level. Their bodies pressed together and Amelia held her breath as his scent filled her nostrils, taking her back to her school music room, where they often shared such close physical proximity. He had not changed. The feelings he elicited in her had not changed. 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, every shift of his shoulders and chest stark against her back. She was all of eight when she learned to play that song, and it had quickly become 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 silver-ringed green eyes. It gave her an air of enigma, at once 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. The bewitching appeal of her unflinching personality had called to him like a flame enticing a moth. Even with bruised, tear-stained cheeks, the appeal was no less.
“Listen to me, very carefully.” He flicked moisture from her lashes with his thumb. “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 tilted her face to look 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 or career, 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 in 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 day at the academy 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.”
“I thought you wanted to get away from the old times?” she snorted, a dry smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Daniel chuckled fondly.
“That doesn’t mean I stopped considering you a friend,” he replied. “You have no idea how distressing it is to see you like this. 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 with 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.” Palming her shoulders, 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. The fear of failure, embarrassment, and ridicule had made her consider quitting her course, when deep inside she wanted nothing more than to finish her first concerto and present it to the world. She did need help, even though she was too ashamed to admit it. Daniel was here now, offering his support without being asked. 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.