Dionne’s passion for music resonates through this lovely story. Brava.”
–Nikki Logan, author of How to Get Over Your Ex
Excerpt:© 2013 Aubrie Dionne
Missing the Beat
“Bad date, huh?” Carly ran her cleaning cloth through her oboe as her reeds soaked in a tiny shot glass on her music stand. Violins screeched around them while a French horn blatted arpeggios. It wasn’t exactly the best environment for discussing Melody’s dating habits.
“Let’s just say two hours of listening to a guy talk about his Stradivarius is less than enticing.”
Carly stuck her reed in her oboe and blew a tentative note. Ever since the board of directors had turned off the AC to save money, she’d pulled her pin-straight blond hair in a tight bun and wore shorts and sandals to rehearsal. “Which one is he, Mel?”
Melody considered letting the conversation drop. What did it matter? Every one of the musicians she’d dated was the same as her: burned out from practicing to beat the chair ahead of him, teaching five million lessons a day to make ends meet, scrambling for gigs two hours away on the weekends, so involved in a dying art form that he didn’t even know the Bruins were an ice hockey team.
What she needed was a nonmusician, a gorgeous firefighter or a clean-cut Gillette commercial model in a business suit. Yes, a lawyer who worked to defend the innocent would be nice, or a veterinarian for homeless and sick animals—someone who didn’t think the world revolved around him. But she didn’t travel in those social circles. She was stuck in the stuffy bubble of the classical music community.
“So you gonna tell me, or do I have to guess?” Carly set her oboe across her lap and shuffled through her sheet music.
Melody leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Blake Templeton.”
Carly gave her a shocked look. “Not Blake?”
“Yup.” She assembled her flute to try and look like she was warming up, thinking about the disastrous date with the orchestra’s personnel manager. “Good thing it didn’t work out, or everyone would think I was dating him just so he’d tenure my position.”
“I’m surprised he’d ask you out, what with his sister and all…”
Melody rolled her eyes. “Why would a flute prodigy from Julliard want this little Civic Symphony seat anyway? Seems to me a girl who played the Mozart G Major concerto in front of the New York Phil at age seven could get a seat in any orchestra. Age seven. When I was seven, the only thing I was playing was pretend flute on my toothbrush.”
Carly shrugged as if she’d told her this flute whiz could tie her own shoes. “You’re better than you think. You could give Blake’s sister a run for her money any day.”
“Thanks, hon.” Melody twirled her dark curls behind her head and stuck a pencil in to hold the knot. “Like I said. I swear never…”
The orchestra quieted around them. A man with dark chestnut hair flowing in waves around his broad shoulders took the conductor’s podium and tapped his baton on the music stand. Blue eyes that reminded Melody of the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny day surveyed the orchestra. He pursed curvy lips framed by a strong-ridged jaw and gorgeously high cheekbones and gestured to Carly to give the tuning pitch.
Melody was glad the woodwinds sat in the back so he wouldn’t hear her audible gasp. “Who the hell is that?” She thought she knew everything happening with the orchestra.
Carly nodded to him and switched on her tuner, clipping a small mic to the bell of her oboe. She spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “They just introduced him on the website this morning. Their latest surprise: Wolfgang Braun, the guest conductor from Berlin.”
Melody stared in disbelief, thinking Chris Helmsworth’s Thor must have had a better-looking, long-lost cousin in Germany. Since when did conductors lift weights? She’d never have to force herself to look up for cues again.
Carly began her A, and Wolf crossed his arms, his large biceps stretching the fabric of his polo as the strings tuned. He creased his cool eyes as though every note was sour, personally offending his superior sense of aesthetic perfection. Then he winced as the older ladies in the back tried to tighten their strings.
Too bad he’s got a baton up his ass…
As the strings tapered off and the woodwinds began to tune, the new conductor locked eyes with Melody. Curiosity danced in his gaze as he sized her up from across the violas, and, her lungs deflating, she dropped her flute from her lips before her A fell twenty cents flat. Nerves she hadn’t felt since her conservatory days flooded her fingers.
What’s wrong with me? I’ve got no reason to be nervous. She could outplay any up-and-coming flutist, and she’d show him just how many hours she’d played her long tones, refining the clarity of her luscious flute sound.
Suddenly she missed the hunchbacked, half-blind Mr. Wallsworth, even though he couldn’t keep a steady beat. If only the founding father of the Civic Symphony had waited one more year to retire. He adored Melody’s playing, and she’d have her tenure no problem. But attendance at concerts was down, and the board had scrambled to find anything or anyone to boost turnout. Looks like they hit the genetic jackpot.
The tuning notes died away, and Wolf uncrossed his arms and opened his score. “Guten tag, my fellow musicians.” He spoke in a thick German accent, each syllable strong and angular, like his face. The orchestra applauded tentatively and Mr. Hottie bowed. “Not to be confused with Wolfgang Amadeus, you all can call me Wolf.”
Wolf placed both arms on the conductor’s podium and leaned toward the orchestra. “As you know, attendance has been less than desirable, so I’ve been working with the board of directors on a plan. We’re going to turn this orchestra around, and we’re going to start now.”
Grunts of approval rang out, along with some worried looks from a few older ladies in the back. His words struck a dissonant chord within Melody. She never liked change, especially when it came to her orchestra. As long as it doesn’t mean replacing the current personnel.
Wolf gestured to Blake. “Take it away, Concertmaster.”
Blake stood, cradling his precious Stradivarius in the crook of his arm like a baby. “The bottom line is, we need to replenish our trust fund. Donors are getting scarce, and the price for renting the hall, the music, and paying all of you union wages is taking its toll. The last thing the board wants to do is close this orchestra, but if we don’t see big numbers—and fast—we’ll all be out of a job. I’ve chosen a dynamic program for our JulyFourth concert in two weeks. Each ticket will be selling at twice the price. We need, I repeat need, to sell out this event. There will be a fund-raising auction one week prior to the concert, and all of you are required to attend.”
Melody’s blood pressure shot up as Blake spoke. She’d auditioned for other orchestras in the past and had gotten on the sub lists, but no one ever retired, and she’d only received one playing call in the past five years since graduation. Not only that, but orchestras were going out of business left and right. The Easthampton Civic Symphony was her only claim to fame, and if that went down, so did her career.
Looking beyond her own personal problems, her heart went out to all the older retirees who would never play in an orchestra again.
Blake tapped his bow on the podium to quiet the murmurs racing through the group. “One more thing. The annual concerto competition winners will perform during this benefit concert. Usually we open the spots to anyone playing in the orchestra. But this year, to create buzz, we’re going to open auditions to the community. Anyone who plays an instrument can enter.”
Melody’s hands tightened around her flute. What if Blake’s sister entered? Her stomach dropped. As much as she hated memorizing entire concertos, she knew she needed to enter.
Wolf nodded to Blake and the violinist sat down. “We can do this, but we’ll have to give a show no one’s ever seen before.” He tapped his baton on the podium. “On that note. Let’s begin with the Hiefinger.”
It took Melody several seconds to register the name of the composer, but when she did, she felt like a fire engine had just barreled down on top of her, horn blaring and all. She hadn’t heard of him. Ever.
Carly shuffled through her music and brought out a hand-scribed piece of music with the name Hiefinger scrawled on the right corner. Melody frantically flipped through everything in her folder. Don Juan, a copy of Beethoven’s fifth from the last concert, an old letter from the board of directors, a page from her niece’s Disney princess book scribbled in pink crayon, and her orchestral excerpt book. No Hiefinger.
Her heart threatened to burst. “Carly!” she whispered and pointed to her stand. “Where did you get that?”
Carly’s face fell. “You mean you didn’t get the music in the mail?”
Blake Templeton, you forgetful bastard. One check over her shoulder told her everyone else had the music, even the second flute. Everyone but her.
Wolf’s arm came down, and a beautiful chord emanated from the strings.
Feeling like a kindergartener who’d forgotten her homework on the first day, Melody raised her hand and cleared her throat. “Hold on.”
The chord died into silence and Wolf stared at her icily. “What is the problem?”
Every single violinist turned around in his and her seat to gawk. Melody’s cheeks blazed like fire. “I don’t have the music, sir.”
“Don’t have the music?” He blinked as if the fact somehow gave him an allergic reaction.
She could tell he was already thinking she’d left it at home, lost it, or was too totally inept to even recognize the page in the first place. Her eyes shot to Blake and her voice grew hard, accusatory. “I never received it.”
Blake squinted his eyebrows. “I sent everyone their parts on Mayfirst, along with a list of the concert order.”
“Well, I didn’t get the Hiefinger or the list—”
Wolf held up his hand, silencing Melody. “It’s mistakes like this that explain why the orchestra isn’t doing well.”
She fumed in her seat like a baked potato, a million nasty names filling her mouth. Great. The king of all the self-centered, arrogant, egotistical male musicians on planet Earth and he’s my boss.
Either Blake was a bumbling idiot too caught up in his own playing to notice, or he was a devious plotter wanting to make her look bad for his flute goddess of a sister. And to think, he did this before our date.
Had it even been a real date at all, or was he just trying to get information from her?
Annoyance flashed across the conductor’s rigid features before he hid it under a calm and gorgeous facade. “Is there something we can do? Blake?”
Blake sighed and picked his way through the violin section. “I’ll check the library for duplicates.”
“Very well. There’s no sense in starting without the principal flute and one of the first violins.” Wolf rubbed his forehead with his fingers, as if he questioned his decision to conduct an irresponsible American orchestra. He leaned back and crossed his arms again. “We’ll wait.”
Melody sat in humiliation while the entire orchestra fidgeted. The second flutist tapped her foot and clacked her keys up and down the C major scale, the violinists in the back raised their eyebrows and fingerpicked through their parts. One of the trombonists emptied his spit valve. Carly whispered to Melody. “You sure you never got it?”
She hadn’t earned the position of principal flutist by being irresponsible. Impulsive, yes, but not disorganized. She growled under her breath. “I’m sure.”
Melody wasn’t going to voice her suspicions about Blake and his ulterior motives with everyone around. And mentioning his sister would make her out to be crazy, insecure, or delusional. No, it was better she keep her mouth shut and pray to the sheet music god they had a spare first flute part.
Yup, this went down as #2 in the most embarrassing moments of her life, right along with throwing up at her sister’s wedding (#1) and driving into a curb while trying to read show times in front of the movie theater on a blind date (#3). She’d had a flat tire, but at least the most gorgeous musician of all time wasn’t breathing down her neck.
Blake returned with papers, which was a good sign. He nodded to Wolf and plopped the handwritten scrawl on Melody’s stand. “Good luck sight-reading.” It sounded like a challenge. Melody glanced at the page of black thirty-second notes littered with accidentals. Solo was written on top of almost every measure. Her stomach sank.
Come on, girl. Sight-reading is one of your strengths. She was convinced it was sight-reading that got her into the New England Conservatory, because she’d fumbled a run in the cadenza due to nerves. But she’d nailed the sight-reading.
Wolf scanned the orchestra. “Anyone else forget, or lose, their music?”
Melody’s mouth dropped open. He was cutting her down in front of everyone, taking Blake’s side. The nerve.
The orchestra remained silent.
“Good, then we can finally proceed.” Wolf raised his baton.
Melody blew a gust of air into her flute. The opening chord started with a lush, vibrant hum, then turned dark and foreboding. The tempo picked up speed, and Melody met the conductor with her eyes for every entrance without missing a beat. She sounded glorious, her tone ringing like clear crystal bells. She began to enjoy herself.
This new conductor wasn’t just good. He was magical, bringing each moment to its fullest potential. His charisma enticed the orchestra to play their hearts out for every note. His baton danced in the air, and his face expressed the emotions in the music as if he were the main protagonist working his way through the symphony of life.
How could such a pretentious snob exhibit such unbridled, raw emotion? Melody watched his transformation from arrogant rigidity to sincere reverence throughout the entire piece. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, he pulled on her heartstrings, and every note she played sang to his desires. He made poor old Mr. Wallsworth seem like a toad with a stick. For the first time, she believed Wolfgang Braun could turn this orchestra around.
Too bad he thought she was the biggest idiot to ever play flute.
The piece concluded with a final fanfare of trumpets, and she held the last chord, feeling the rumbling of timpani in her gut. Wolf cut off the fermata, and the orchestra settled back in their seats with satisfied grins, like they’d delivered the empty audience to heaven and back.
Carly turned to her. “Wow, you go girl.”
Melody wiped sweat from her headjoint. “I was lucky.”
“Hardly. You were on fire.”
She’d been more than on fire. For the first time since graduating from NEC, she’d completely and utterly let go. Under Wolf’s conducting she’d played better than she ever had before.
Wolf caught her staring at him, and a strangely complicated emotion crossed his face before he tore his eyes away and addressed the orchestra. “We have some hard work to do, but not bad.”
Not bad? Melody wiped down her flute so rigorously she could have taken off a layer of silver along with her fingerprints.
Wolf closed his score. “Fifteen minutes for break. No more.”
As the other musicians walked off the stage to chitchat and snack, Melody planted herself in her seat in indecision. Wolf stood on the podium, marking his score—probably circling every single note the orchestra missed. Should she try to smooth things over? Melody stood with determination and walked through the rows of violin seats to the podium.
Wolf gazed up from his score with smoldering sapphire eyes, reminding her of her dream Gillette commercial guy. “Yes?”
Melody blinked away the fantasy. “I wanted to formally introduce myself.” She held out her hand. “Melody Mires.”
He stared at her hand for a long, drawn-out heartbeat before taking it into his own. His fingers were large and rough, like he cut wood with an ax in his spare time—or more like splintered it with Thor’s hammer. “Nice to meet you.” She found it hard to let go.
Remember what you came to do.
Melody released his hand. “Um. Mr. Braun, even though there was a misunderstanding today, I want to make sure you know that I’m one hundred percent committed to making this orchestra a success.” Her hands turned clammy as her gaze traveled the lines of his rigid cheekbone, down to his perfectly sculptured chin. Man, close up, he’s even more gorgeous.
Wolf raised his eyebrows. “Your comment is noted.”
“Noted?” What the hell did that mean?
He held her gaze for another heartbeat, dropping to her nose, and then her lips. Melody burned under his scrutiny. What does he see? Or is it what he doesn’t see? Either way, he certainly intrigued her.
Wasn’t I just swearing off male musicians for the rest of my life?
Wolf pursed his lips, as if trying to stop himself from saying more. “Yes, so if you’ll excuse me…”
Anger rose inside her. Sure, she’d approached him to smooth things over, but he couldn’t treat her orchestra like they were student musicians. She may not have had her music, but he wasn’t perfect, either. Making faces at the orchestra was hardly a mature way to handle their inadequacies. “I’ve noted your excessive disdain for tuning notes as well.”
His eyes flashed with surprise, as if he hadn’t known about his litany of sour expressions. Never mind the Gillette commercial, he should have been on reality TV.
Melody smiled sweetly, as if her comment were a joke, and walked away. She held her composure all the way off the stage and into the bathroom, where she leaned against the cold wall.
She was flushed and shivering at the same time.
…The music still echoing in his head, Wolf closed his score and watched the last of the musicians trickle off the stage. He was fairly sure the bows of those older women in the back row of violins never touched the strings. He wondered if they knew, or if they kept moving their arms thinking the sound was coming out.
He ran his hand through his hair and tried to assess the situation. A league of grandmas playing the violin was the least of his worries. He loved a challenge, but this was a train that had derailed long ago.
His eyes gravitated toward one empty chair in particular—the principal flutist’s. The look on her face when she said she never received the music reminded him so much of the look on Alda’s face when she said she never used his Visa. If that wasn’t enough, the way Melody had boldly approached him demanding he take her side and insulted his expressions was unacceptable. Did they have no manners in America?
The resemblance between his ex and the new flute player was uncanny, right down to the perfect freckles on the bridge of Melody’s nose, her cute, bobbing head of dark curls, and those sparkling green eyes. He had to remind himself Melody Mires was not Alda Schuhmacher. She may have been telling the truth about her music—which would make Blake the biggest arschloch of them all.
Speaking of the violin-playing snake, Blake slithered from the curtains on stage left. Wolf stood and turned for the exit, but he wasn’t fast enough.
“Hold on! Just a second,” Blake called from across the empty seats.
Wolf sighed and turned around, hoping this wasn’t going to be about what he thought. “Mr. Templeton?”
Blake adjusted his little, round glasses. Perfect iron creases were pressed into his button-down shirt. How did he achieve such precision at nine at night? Probably the same way he kept every single note in concert tune and every single dark hair on his head in flawless symmetry. Blake reminded him of the American Ken dolls the girls at school had growing up.
Blake pointed at him, shaking his finger like Wolf had performed a sly magic trick. “It’s not what you can do for me. It’s what you can do for this orchestra! The rehearsal was spectacular. Three board members sat up in the balcony, and they’re already talking about next fall’s season!”
Wolf forced a smile, feigning appreciation of Blake’s compliments. This job was everything he’d always wanted. So why did he feel like such an arschloch? Because of the conditions under which I accepted the position. Hell-bent on leaving Berlin, he’d been too eager to shake Blake’s hand, and now, after actually meeting the people in the orchestra, he didn’t have the heart to do away with any of them if he could help it.
He’d already tried to distance himself, and all it did was make him out to be a pretentious snob. He’d clearly managed to piss off the principal flutist.
“Blake, about the terms of this arrangement—”
“Yes, yes. That’s exactly what I came to talk with you about.” Blake crossed his arms as if he was afraid someone would burst in at any moment. “An orchestra is only as good as its worst player, and I’m sure you noticed tonight that there are several people who are not…” He winced as if it hurt to say, even though Wolf doubted this subject upset Blake much. “Pulling their weight so to speak.”
He’d noticed all right—a bassist whose arm shook with so much vibrato, the pitch couldn’t possibly stay in tune. A percussionist who missed the triangle part—not because he miscounted, but because his strike missed the instrument altogether. A French hornist who invented his own notes. Bad as they were, he could feel their passion for music. Ms. Mires might have thought he was grimacing at their inadequacies, but in fact, he was thinking of how he could ever bring himself to fire them.
“I know some of these players are past their prime,” Wolf conceded. “But they’re the heart of this organization. Take them out, and you lose the orchestra’s soul.” And mine as well.
Blake flipped through his stack of papers and pulled out Wolf’s contract. “You are obligated to improve the quality of this orchestra and ticket sales, per section B of your contract. My personal suggestion, if you want to stay here in America, would be to conduct reauditions as soon as possible. I know many able musicians willing to come in—musicians who don’t forget their music.”
Wolf turned away, peering out the window where the principal flutist chatted with the principal oboe on the corner of the sidewalk, illuminated by the glow of a golden streetlamp. Sure, he knew why Blake wanted to get rid of her, and she made him uncomfortable for his own personal reasons. Not only did she resemble his ex, but her impetuous need to claim her innocence and her obvious ridicule of his expressions did not bode well for a team player in an orchestra. He had to remind himself, though, that she’d sight-read that piece almost perfectly.
“Let me handle the terms of the contract my way. I can assure you I will raise the level of this orchestra and outsell all of your previous concerts without firing anyone.” He put his hands up. “If I don’t, you can fire me yourself.”
Blake’s lips pressed together in a thin line. “Very well, Mr. Braun. You’ve been warned.”
Just as Wolf thought he was rid of him, Blake raised his finger. “And one more thing. Mr. Wallsworth hired a lot of his friends and fellow war veterans to fill this orchestra. Heck, he even had his wife playing piano in the back on pieces that didn’t have it in the score. To correct this blatant show of favoritism, the president of the board has asked that you keep entirely professional relationships with all the orchestra members.”
The president of the board, eh? Little old Gertrude Maxhammer, with her diamond earrings and silver walking cane, was more of a wolf in disguise but with a shrewd business sense. Good thing he’d have no problem with that rule. Alda’s twin sat in the flute section. “That won’t be difficult.”
Blake scrunched his face, as though Wolf had just slighted the attractiveness of the whole orchestra. “Very well.” He spun around, flung open the door, and walked out.
Wolf slumped into the makeup chair, staring at himself in the mirror. Growing up, music had been so simple, his way of expressing emotions he couldn’t put into words. Practicing had taught him discipline, while his piano teacher had given him the tools he needed to understand how to work with others, appreciate real beauty, and preserve the classics. Now it was all a political game, a moneymaking machine in a world where classical music was about as necessary as powdered wigs.
He wandered back to the window. The principal oboe had left, and the flutist—wasn’t her name Melody?—opened the door of her silver Fiat 500. She threw her case in the backseat and paused. She’d taken the pencil out of her hair, allowing the dark curls to cascade down her back in ebony rivulets.
As if sensing someone was watching her, Melody whirled around and caught his face in the window. Her expression changed from suspicion to surprise. Wolf immediately looked away, focusing on the buildings across the street, and when he looked back, the Fiat was already barreling to the streetlight at the end of the block. She drove just like she played—with impulsiveness and wild abandon—and he found himself smiling at her aggressive maneuvers to slip into the faster lane.
Sich am Riemen reißen! Or, as the Americans would say: Get a grip, man.
He’d just ended his relationship with Alda three months ago. The last thing he needed was another sly woman to tempt him into distraction, a sassy, outspoken American at that. He bet Miss Mires had broken a few hearts in her day, and his wasn’t going on her list.
Grabbing his messenger bag, Wolf decided what he needed most was a pint of Heineken and some time to relax. He had to think of a plan to get this orchestra on its feet, and he only had two weeks until the next concert.
What he needed was a miracle.
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