Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Davies.
Disclaimers - This is an Uber story. As such, it doesn't actually feature the characters who appear in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess (and who are the sole copyright property of Studios USA Television Distribution LLC) but it was inspired by them. Instead it features my characters and my totally fictional musicians' seminar.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
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Bethany gazed at the volunteers assembled in the living room and sighed contently. All the familiar faces were present: Alice, the cook and self-appointed 'mother' of the little group; Sam, the gardener; and general dogsbodies Mungo and Charlotte, otherwise known as 'the terrible two'.
Alice leaned over. "Nice to see you again, my bird."
"You know me. Wouldn't miss it for the world."
Bethany grinned at the middle-aged cook, but she was deadly serious. There was something magnetic about the Pendragon Cove Musicians' Seminar, about the handful of famous violinists and cellists and the sixty youngsters who travelled from all round the world to the tip of Cornwall to benefit from their expertise. The buzz Bethany got simply from mingling with such different, such exotic people, made her family's constant sniping about the Seminar bearable.
Well, almost. She sighed. Her parents and brothers simply couldn't understand why she'd choose to give up ten days of her precious holiday from the Pixie Café to look after 'grockles' (the unaffectionate local word for tourists). After all, the pay at Pendragon House wasn't exactly great - bed and board for the duration.
The door opened and the Seminar's Artistic Director came in, a blue document wallet clutched under one arm. He placed the wallet on a coffee table then beamed at all of them and blinked shortsightedly.
"Well, well," he said, shaking the hand of each volunteer in turn. "Here we are again."
Sam's freckled face split into a grin. "Evening, Mr Zeleny."
"Stephen," said the director, following what had become something of a ritual. "Call me Stephen. … Alice, I can't wait to sample your delicious cooking."
"You're just saying that, my handsome."
"I'm not. … Mungo, my boy. … And the lovely Charlotte. Welcome."
He held out a hand to Bethany. "And last but not least Bethany, my dear. I've had the minibus cleaned in your honour."
She shook his hand and tried not to blush.
Handshakes complete, the director gestured them all to take a seat. Bethany obliged, knowing tonight was probably her last chance to take advantage of the armchairs - it was Monday tomorrow, and the teachers and students would be arriving.
While the volunteers made themselves comfortable, the artistic director sat and waited and steepled his fingers. The elbows of his jacket badly needed patching, noticed Bethany. Same old Stephen.
"You all know the drill," he said. "For the next ten days, I want you to make sure all our guests are comfortable and happy. They need to be able to concentrate on their music without interruption from … um … more mundane matters." He grinned. "Our maestros will be the same as this time last year -"
A relieved murmur went round the group.
"- with one exception. Claudia Holbrook will be taking the violin classes Sigismund Gierek took."
Bethany frowned thoughtfully. Claudia Holbrook? The name was vaguely familiar.
"Claudia," continued Stephen, "for those of you unfamiliar with her work, is a very accomplished English violinist and a good friend. She only agreed to come at the last minute, so her details aren't in the Seminar brochure, but I've had some pages printed up." He pulled some photocopied sheets of A4 from the blue document wallet and handed them out. "Here."
Bethany accepted her sheet and gazed at the smudged black and white photo. In it, a striking looking woman with long dark hair and a closed expression was clutching a violin in one longfingered hand. She nearly whistled aloud at the CV. Claudia Holbrook was only 31, yet she had already played with most of the major American and European orchestras and had recorded an impressive number of classical CDs.
"Another of his waifs and strays, I shouldn't wonder," whispered Alice from the armchair next to Bethany.
"Isn't she a lesbian?" asked Mungo.
"As always," said Stephen, ignoring the comment, though Bethany was sure he must have heard it, "please treat the maestros just like everyone else. The Seminar isn’t about ego. We're all in this together. Clear?"
Bethany added her voice to the chorus. "Clear."
"Right, then," said Stephen. "I think that's about it." He rose to his feet. "I know you'll all work hard - you always do - but I hope you'll also take the opportunity to enjoy yourselves."
Bethany nodded enthusiastically. She certainly intended to.
Claudia glanced at her wristwatch for the umpteenth time and sighed. Why did time always crawl by when you least wanted it to? She couldn't wait to get to Penzance if only to stretch her legs a bit. She'd been sitting on this damned train for nearly five hours.
Bloody Stephen! She gazed out at the Cornish countryside, not really seeing the banks of creamy primroses, the folded green hills. She'd never been to a Pendragon Cove Musicians' Seminar before, never even taught a masterclass before, though she'd been on the receiving end of a few. She must be mad. But he had been so persuasive, and not averse to using a little emotional blackmail ….
"I've been worried about you, Claudia." He'd gazed at her with his brown Spaniel eyes. "You need to get back in the swim. So you're not up to performance, yet …. Why not try some teaching? You know your parents wouldn’t have wanted you to hide away like this …."
She'd caved in the moment he mentioned her parents, of course. As he'd known she would.
"Great." He'd beamed at her, then kissed her gently on the cheek, his bristles prickling her skin, his clean soap smell reminding her of her father.
She groaned. What have you got me into now, Stephen?
The sea hove suddenly into view - an expanse of intense blue that took Claudia's breath away and brought back a vivid memory: Ben clutching a red bucket and spade and beaming, Mum and Dad watching him indulgently .… She blinked her suddenly blurry vision clear and took a deep breath then let it out slowly. Got to keep it together, she told herself. Got to move on ….
The railway line was now running alongside a stretch of golden sand, and the train was slowing. They must be approaching Penzance. Stephen had promised that someone would meet her at the station.
Claudia settled her sunglasses on her nose - she didn't need them, but they helped to armour her against the world - then stood up and smoothed the wrinkles from her skirt. Then she heaved her suitcases down from the luggage rack and glanced out of the window again.
April. In Cornwall. Ten days in the back of beyond. Bloody hell!
Bethany turned the minibus into the station carpark and grimaced. It was nearly dusk and she was late. She was also tired and a little grubby - the minibus's front offside tyre had developed a puncture, and she'd been forced to repair it herself.
She recognized her passenger immediately, in spite of the mirrored sunglasses. Even if she hadn't, the violin case nestled under one arm would have been a dead giveaway.
Bethany pulled the minibus to a halt in front of her passenger and wound down the window. "Ms Holbrook?" The dark-haired woman's smart navy jacket and skirt made Bethany even more conscious of the oil stains on her T-shirt and jeans.
"Yes." The voice sounded curt.
"Sorry I'm late."
Bethany got out, moved round the bus, and opened the passenger door. Without even a Thank You, Claudia eased herself into the passenger seat, rested the violin case protectively in her lap, and started putting on her seatbelt.
Bethany gaped at her for a moment then grabbed the suitcases she had made no effort to stow. One in particular was heavy, and she half carried, half dragged it round to the back of the bus.
Must think I'm her personal slave, she thought sourly.
Mungo's bald statement about Claudia the night before had piqued Bethany's interest. She'd never met a lesbian, at least not that she was aware of - the reaction of the locals meant people in her village kept such things quiet. But first impressions of the violin maestro were not promising. Claudia was a friend of Stephen's, though, so she must have some redeeming qualities … aside from her striking good looks and height. She must be nearly six foot tall!
Baggage safely stowed, Bethany hopped back into the driver's seat, slipped on her own safety belt, and drove out of the station carpark.
"You're the last arrival," she told Claudia conversationally as they headed out of town towards the A394.
No reply. The violinist could have been a statue … apart from the right thumb gently rubbing a scar on the back of her left hand.
Bethany tried again. "I should think you're exhausted after your journey. Still, not long now. It's only about half an hour's drive."
The other woman continued to gaze silently out at the darkening countryside.
Bethany sighed and changed gear. The way things were going, this year's Seminar, she thought sourly, could turn out to be the longest ten days on record.
"Claudia!" Stephen Zeleny came down the weathered stone steps leading from the porch and pulled her into a hug.
Claudia accepted the embrace for a moment, then pulled back. "Well," she said, returning his smile. "I'm here, you old rogue." She folded her sunglasses and put them in her pocket.
"You won’t regret it."
He turned back towards the house, which looked to Claudia's apprehensive gaze like something out of a Daphne du Maurier story. It was huge - fours storeys tall, if she wasn't mistaken. Ivy and wisteria had vigorously colonized most of the stone walls and was now threatening to invade the house itself, and some of the roof tiles looked like they wouldn't survive the next gale.
Rambling and in need of personal grooming, she thought wryly. Much like Stephen himself. She followed him up the steps.
He stopped at the top and looked back. "Bethany, those look far too heavy. Get Sam to carry them for you."
Claudia was surprised at the familiar way Stephen addressed the talkative minibus driver, who at the moment was dragging the expensive suitcases up the steps and no doubt scuffing them. She tucked her violin case under one arm, jogged back down, and took her cases from the smaller woman, who to her surprise scowled at her. Hefting them easily, Claudia turned, and rejoined Stephen.
"I'd forgotten how strong you are." He grinned.
"All that playing," she said dismissively. "I hope you've put me in a quiet room."
"Relatively." He led the way through the front door into the huge stone-flagged hall. "It's on the top floor."
"You've put me in the attic?" She raised an eyebrow.
"All the maestros are up there - including me. They're the only single rooms in the house, Claudia." He grinned at her. "I didn't think you’d fancy sharing a room with three students … or they'd fancy sharing a room with you."
"Anyway, your room has a great view. I'm sure you'll love it." He glanced at the violin case. "Your Guarnerius?"
She flushed and dropped her gaze. "No. It’s still being repaired." She nodded at the case. "I picked this up in Oxford Street. It'll do."
"You should have said," he chided her. "I would have arranged to borrow an instrument for you, something more suited to your talent."
"It doesn't matter. This'll do fine." Deliberately, she changed the subject. "Now, if you could show me to my room .…"
"Later," he told her. "First I want you to come and meet the other maestros."
With a sigh Claudia deposited her suitcases and violin at the bottom of the rambling stairs and followed him along the hall.
Bethany watched the tall woman follow the director, amazed by the way the violinist had become almost a different person in his company.
The mirrored sunglasses had revealed eyes of a blue Bethany hadn't seen in combination with raven hair before. Arctic eyes to match an arctic temperament, she thought wryly. She turned and went outside into the darkness again.
After she had parked the minibus in the garage, and locked up for the night, she made her way through to the huge kitchen where Alice was preparing dinner. Tonight it was Shepherd's Pie or, for the vegetarians, Macaroni Cheese. The musicians might be international, but the food at Pendragon House was always resolutely British.
"What kept you, my bird?" asked Alice, as Bethany put on a spare apron and, unprompted, began to help her mash the huge amount of boiled potatoes.
"What's she like," asked Sam, getting in the way.
"Will you sit down before you trip me up," said Bethany irritably. "Who?" She added seasoning and milk and continued to mash.
"Claudia Holbrook, of course." He took himself and his big feet to a stool in the corner and perched on it.
"Oh, you mean Miss Snooty," said Bethany. "Didn't say a word to me the entire journey. Didn't offer to carry her suitcases … until Stephen pointed out how heavy they were." She trailed off, remembering how easily Claudia had lifted the cases, and regarded her own wrists and hands curiously.
"You finished mashing them spuds yet?" asked Alice pointedly.
Bethany came to with a start. "Sorry." She passed the pan to the older woman, and Alice began to pile a layer of mashed potato over minced lamb, fried onions, stock, and mixed herbs.
"Well she's Stephen's friend, so she can't be all that bad," said Alice, standing back to admire her handiwork.
Bethany began to wash the dirty dishes. "Don’t you believe it," she muttered darkly.
Claudia gazed around her room with dismay. The furniture was old-fashioned and shabby, the chintz armchair faded, the mattress lumpy, and the bedlinen was sheets and blankets instead of the duvet she preferred. There wasn't even an en suite, just a washbasin with hot and cold taps.
She sighed. I've got too used to staying in hotels.
Stephen had introduced her to the other 'maestros' as he insisted on calling them, and then it had been dinner time. The Shepherd's Pie hadn't been at all bad - it had reminded her of her mother's cooking - but tension had stolen her appetite.
What the hell was she doing here? She hadn't performed in public for over a year and the way things looked she never would again. Whereas the others …. She owned CDs by Allegra Guignard and Bartalan Domokos, the Seminar's two cellists, one French the other Hungarian. And when she had been in the USA she had caught one of Dutchman Karel Rossevelt's piano recitals at the Carnegie Hall. As for Stephen, he might have given up performing, but he had founded this Seminar and his fame as a violin teacher was growing.
She crossed to the window and looked out. Darkness hid the view Stephen had promised her, but she could hear the waves. With difficulty - the sea air had warped the wooden window frame - she heaved the sash window open a few inches. The sound of the waves was louder now - a rhythmic, gentle hissing that soothed her ragged nerves. Absently she stroked the scar on the back of her left hand - it had been itching today; must be the weather - and stared out into the darkness ….
She had lost track of time when the cool night air brought her back to her surroundings, and she closed the window and drew the curtains.
Someone - the mysterious 'Sam', she surmised - had brought her suitcases up but hadn't unpacked them. She swung them onto the bed and began to unpack them herself, carefully shaking the creases from each item of clothing before hanging it from the wire hangers that inhabited the huge mahogany wardrobe.
Then she picked up her violin case, unlatched it and took out the mediocre instrument it contained. She ran her fingertips lightly over the fingerboard, then plucked each of the four steel strings in turn. She winced - the A string was slightly flat - and retuned it, then plucked the strings again. Compared to the Guarnerius, its tone was dull. She sighed, placed it back in its case, and snapped the lid shut.
An urge to yawn overtook her, and she gave in to it, realizing suddenly how exhausted she was. All that travelling, she supposed, plus the stress of meeting strangers and wondering whether they disapproved of her. A good night's sleep, that's what she needed. It would all look better in the morning. Yeah, right.
Rather groggily, she reached for her spongebag and set off to find the communal bathroom ….
Bethany had spent the morning in the little office, helping Stephen catch up on his paperwork. His filing system was in chaos, and her fingers itched to sort it out.
"What would I do without you, Bethany?" he asked when he'd finished dictating a letter to a businessman interested in sponsoring next year's Seminar.
She grinned. "Same as you do the rest of the year."
He smiled and reached for the next item of business.
A little later, Stephen was called away for an hour and told her to take advantage of the sunny Spring morning. She took him at his word and headed for the nearby cove that had given the old house its name.
It was a steep and rocky path down to the cove, but it was worth it. By the time she got there, the tide had gone out, revealing a carpet of glistening pebbles and a narrow margin of sandy beach. She stood on one of the slabs of rock used, on warmer occasions, for sunbathing, flung her arms into the air, and added her voice to the scream of the gulls. Then she gave into an impulse to spin, until dizziness brought her breathlessly to a halt.
The tide had refreshed several rockpools, and she searched them unsuccessfully for crabs then began beachcombing, selecting the more ornate shells and sea-polished pebbles to put on the mantelpiece in her room. She was irritated to notice, as she worked, that her mind kept returning to Claudia Holbrook.
Last night at dinner, Bethany had found herself unable to stop watching the violinist as she pushed her food - obviously not up to the standard she was used to - around her plate. There was something about Claudia; she was like some planetary body whose gravity warped the space around her. Bethany wrinkled her nose at the overblown analogy.
She had a feeling that Claudia had featured in her dreams too, though in what capacity, she wasn't quite sure -
She came to an abrupt halt. Who am I kidding? Claudia is … well she's … she searched for the word and found it: stunning. Then she groaned. Why did life always have to be so complicated?
It wasn't as if the woman had done anything to attract her. Take breakfast. Those amazing ice blue eyes hadn't even looked up when Bethany placed the poached egg on toast and cup of Earl Grey tea in front of her. Claudia had eaten her breakfast quietly and soon after left the dining room.
It irked Bethany to be treated as though she were invisible, though to be fair, Claudia was treating everyone the same … except perhaps Stephen. She had also ignored the shy glances and whispered comments from the giggling students at the next table who were clearly still too much in awe of the maestro to address her directly.
Bethany sighed. What was wrong with the woman? She had everything - looks, talent, fame, fortune ….
She picked up a pebble and threw it into the waves, where it landed with a loud and very satisfying splash. Of all people, it had to be Miss Snooty she was attracted to? Somewhere, she felt sure, the Cornish gods were laughing.
Claudia paused outside the door labelled 'Violin Masterclass' - one of Pendragon House's many living rooms that had been converted for the purpose - and took a deep breath.
She had spent the morning in her room making notes and wondering whether the piece she had chosen to teach - Beethoven's Violin Concerto - was the right one for her first ever masterclass. She should have consulted Stephen, she supposed, but he was busy with admin matters in his office and she hated to disturb him. It was too late now.
It was all very well him saying that of course she could teach. "I taught you," he'd said. "Just remember what it was like to be on the receiving end. You'll be okay." She wished she had his confidence.
She had been pacing, deep in thought, and glancing occasionally out the window at the view daylight had revealed: the tiny, secluded cove, and beyond that the blue waters of Mount's Bay, when a distant figure had appeared. It was the blonde minibus driver, whose name she had forgotten. To Claudia's surprise, the small woman had stood on a rock, stretched out her arms, and screamed; at least she supposed it was a scream - the wind had blown the sound out to sea.
Intrigued despite herself, Claudia had halted and stared down at the tiny figure now spinning like a whirling Dervish. Irresistibly, her thoughts had been drawn back to happier times, to childhood holidays at the seaside when she and Ben - She cut off that thought and blew out a breath.
Odd. When they'd met, Claudia had assumed the blonde woman was the regular driver for the Seminar. When next she had seen her, she had been serving meals. And this morning, she could have sworn she saw the woman disappearing into Stephen's office. Must be some kind of 'Jill of all Trades', she had thought, shrugging, and turning her back on the figure now searching rockpools.
Claudia reached for the doorknob and paused. These were talented students, right? With ambitions. She chewed her lip. Not to ask the most they could give would be patronizing, and she had hated being patronized when she was a teenager.
She sighed, suppressed an overwhelming urge to run, turned the handle, and opened the classroom door ….
"- were in tears!" said Charlotte, her expression a mix of awe and outrage.
"Who were?" Bethany had entered the kitchen halfway through the conversation. The teenager tended to exaggerate, she knew, but even so ….
"Claudia Holbrook's students," said Alice, flouring her rolling pin before rolling out the pastry for tonight's Steak and Mushroom Pie.
"I'm not surprised," said Bethany.
Mungo sneaked a button mushroom then yelped when Alice tapped his wrist with the rolling pin. "You and Charlotte should be dusting, not eating me out of house and home."
"We're taking a break." He chewed defiantly. "That Claudia's got nice legs."
All three women glared at him.
"Well, she has!"
Privately, Bethany agreed. Publicly, she rolled her eyes. "Mungo! She's here to teach, not show off her legs."
"Yeah," said Charlotte peevishly. "Hands off, Mungo."
The twenty-two-year old shrugged. "She's gay, anyway."
Bethany ignored the comment. "But really, tears!" she said. "What did she do?"
Sam came in with a basket on his arm and half the vegetable plot on his boots.
"It's Worzel Gummidge!" hooted Charlotte.
Placidly he put the basket of freshly dug carrots on a worktop, and strolled over to the sink. "What did who do?" He began to wash his hands.
Bethany rolled her eyes again. "We're discussing Claudia Holbrook. Apparently she reduced her class to tears."
"Nah," corrected Sam, drying his hands on a towel. "Only one girl cried. You know, the little Japanese one? She said the maestro expected far too much of her … no-one could be that good."
"Oh." Bethany digested that for a moment then added: "Kameko's her name, I think. She's from Tokyo."
Alice lined a pie dish with pastry and piled in mushrooms and the stewing steak she had cooked earlier. "Give Ms Holbrook a chance, my birds," she said. "It's the first time she's ever taught, you know."
"That's all very well," said Charlotte, "but the students aren't going to put up with being terrorized for long. They'll be asking for their money back."
"Even with nice legs," added Bethany, under her breath.
Claudia gripped the windowledge tightly, and stared out at nothing in particular. The constant faint soundtrack of music and laughter was beginning to get on her nerves.
It was apparently a Seminar custom that after dinner the students, and maestros too if they felt so inclined, formed groups and rehearsed or just sight-read whatever chamber music took their fancy. (Pendragon House's little library was supposedly well stocked with music scores.) Stephen had urged her to join in the impromptu sessions - but the last thing she felt like doing at the moment was joining in.
She had forced herself to eat some of the rich meat pie at dinner, though the wide-eyed looks and whispers coming her way had made her feel nauseous. As soon as she decently could, she had excused herself.
The masterclass had been a disaster, she admitted. She wasn't quite sure why or what to do about it. The three students receiving tuition while their peers watched had seemed completely unable to grasp what she wanted of them. And the more suggestions she made, the more she demonstrated (the crappy violin didn't help - she really missed her Guarnerius), the more flustered they became.
She sighed. Maybe it was simply that those three weren't as talented as Stephen had led her to believe. Maybe the next three students would understand.
Claudia sat in the armchair long after the light had failed, staring at the faded wallpaper but not seeing it, listening to the strains of chamber-music but not hearing it, trying not to think of anything at all.
If the last year had taught her anything, she thought, in a brief moment of lucidity, it was that numbness was the best way to keep the hurt at bay ….
Bethany regarded the ceiling in confusion, then belatedly registered the snores of the room's three other occupants and the rhythmic, muted hiss of the waves.
I'm at Pendragon House!
The thought relaxed her at once, and she stretched with enjoyment before craning her head towards the alarm clock on the bedside cabinet. The illuminated dial showed: 3 am. Something had woken her, but if not her roommates, then what?
Then she heard it, in the distance: a solo violin. She shivered slightly and pulled the candlewick bedspread closer, whether for warmth or comfort, she wasn't quite sure. There was something eerie about the mournful tune the anonymous violinist was playing, something faintly chilling about hearing it in the early morning darkness. Bethany wasn't superstitious, but in this setting - a rambling, gothic old house overlooking the sea ….
She smiled wryly. Get a grip, girl. It's obviously one of the violin students practicing for a masterclass. But she didn’t recognize the piece, and over the years she had been coming to the Seminar, Bethany's knowledge of classical music had widened considerably.
The music stopped abruptly and Bethany held her breath and waited for it to resume. Minutes passed. The musician must have finished playing for the night, she decided at last. She exhaled, and let her eyelids flutter closed.
Whoever had composed that tune must have been feeling sad, she thought drowsily. So very sad. Then sleep claimed her and she sank into its welcoming blackness ….
The dew was still on the long grass when Claudia took a shortcut across a field of grazing sheep, and moisture soaked her trainers and the legs of her tracksuit bottoms.
She felt dazed from lack of sleep - the nightmares had seen to that. At one point during the interminable night she had even tried to play herself into a better frame of mind, to ease the tension she could never seem to get rid of, but it hadn't worked.
Perhaps, she thought belatedly, she should have chosen something mathematical, precise, emotionless … but her own composition was nagging at her to be finished, and it had seemed the obvious choice. In the end, though, the mediocre violin's tone had irritated her so much, she had stopped playing and almost given in to the urge to smash it to smithereens. Almost …. Absently, she rubbed the scar on her left hand.
She jogged along the coastal path and stopped at a viewing point on the cliff edge. For a while she did some stretching exercises, then a few kickboxing moves. When she was pleasantly tired, she stopped and removed her earphones, replacing Beethoven with the cries of gulls and oystercatchers and the hypnotic swell of the waves. As her pulse rate and breathing returned to normal, she stared out to sea and watched the early morning mist clear slowly.
It was a mistake to come here, to let Stephen sway her from her better instincts. She wasn’t a teacher. She wasn't a performer either. Let's face it, she wasn't really anything anymore. The thought should have hurt much more than it actually did, she acknowledged ruefully.
She sighed. Better get it over with then. She put on her earphones, squared her shoulders, and set off back to the house in search of Stephen.
"Ah, Bethany. Thanks for coming so quickly. Before breakfast too."
Stephen Zeleny looked even more disheveled than usual. Bethany wrinkled her nose at him.
"Forgive my appearance, my dear." He indicated his sweater and jeans then ran a hand over his still unshaven chin. "I'm in a tearing hurry. I have to go to London."
"I know, I know. But there's really nothing I can do about it. The other maestros will have to take over my violin and cello classes as well as their own. If they all share the load it won’t be too bad."
"Not Ms Holbrook." The words were out before Bethany could stop them.
The director glanced sharply at her. "You don’t think she'll cope?"
Bethany flushed. "I'm sorry. That must sound presumptuous …." She trailed off. It hadn't been Claudia she was thinking of so much as the poor students.
But Stephen was nodding and looking thoughtful. "No," he said. "You're right. She's still too fragile. Allegra and Bartalan will have to cover for me then." He shrugged. "It's not ideal, but it'll have to do."
'Too fragile'? Miss Snooty? "What about admin while you're away?" asked Bethany.
He rubbed his hands together. "I'm placing you in charge while I'm away, Bethany. You're sensible, and you know your way around the office. You're also familiar with the way I do things -"
He held up a hand. "Besides, who else is there? Mungo? Charlotte?"
That stumped Bethany. Alice was the oldest and most responsible of the volunteers, but she would have her work cut out cooking, and Sam spent most of his time in the garden. Which left, as Stephen had realized, the younger more unreliable volunteers … and her.
She sighed. "Well, okay then. It'll only be for a couple of days anyway, won’t it?"
"No more than a week," he assured her.
"I have every confidence in you." His gaze was darting round the room and his mind, she could tell, was already on other things. "And now, my dear, I simply must dash. Look after Claudia while I'm gone, won’t you?"
And with that he was gone, leaving a startled Bethany alone in the office feeling as if she'd just been hit by a truck.
Claudia knocked once on Stephen's office door and marched in. She frowned at the blonde woman sitting behind Stephen's desk, her "Come in" trailing off into silence.
"I'm looking for the Director," said Claudia briskly.
"He's gone. Can I help you?"
Claudia stared. "What do you mean: 'gone'? To Penzance?"
The woman stood up and came out from behind the desk. Even without my heels, she only comes up to my nose, thought Claudia distractedly.
"London. He was called away suddenly." The other woman frowned. "Are you all right, Ms Holbrook?"
The only person in this godforsaken place who gives a shit and he's left without a word! Claudia took a calming breath. "In that case, can you give him a message when he gets back? Can you tell him I -"
"I'm sorry, but I won’t be able to pass on any messages. He'll be away for a week. Now, can I help?"
Claudia felt flushed and offbalance. "Er … it's … um …."
The blonde waited for her to finish.
What green eyes she has, thought Claudia irrelevantly. "I … Nothing," she finished lamely, unwilling to let a Seminar employee know she couldn't cope with a few oversensitive teenagers.
Claudia thought quickly, "My violin …," she seized on the idea with relief. "It's not of the quality I'm used to, so I was wondering it the Seminar had a spare one. You must provide them for students who don't bring their own?"
The blonde woman - what the hell was her name, anyway? - nodded. "We do. I'll look into it for you and see what I can do. Will that be all, Ms Holbrook?"
"Um, yes … Thank you." And with that, Claudia fled.
'Thank you' from Miss Snooty. Would wonders never cease?
Bethany watched the office door close behind the tall woman and wondered how her shoes and tracksuit bottoms had got so wet - had she been paddling in the sea? She drummed her fingers on the desk and thought about the violinist's request.
She had a sudden image of herself presenting Claudia with an appalling fiddle instead of the superior instrument she clearly expected, and of saying, "Tough shit, Ms Holbrook. It's all we have in stock."
For a moment she felt gleeful, then she felt contrite. Stephen clearly considered Claudia Holbrook to be in need of special care. 'Fragile' - she still couldn't get over his choice of word. It didn't matter that Bethany disagreed with his assessment, she was acting in his stead. And since she had promised to find Claudia a violin ….
One hour later, she was fiercely regretting her promise. She had spent the intervening period in the instrument store in the basement, and while there were many violins - whose cases had transferred their coating of dust and cobwebs to her - suitable for a student, there were none even adequate for a maestro.
Faced with the prospect of confessing failure to Miss Snooty, and of confirming the low opinion of her she was sure Claudia already held, Bethany relocked the door to the store, pocketed the key, and walked back upstairs to the office. As she washed the grime from her hands in the washroom, she stared unseeing at her image in the mirror and racked her brains.
What would Stephen have done? And then she had it.
The woman in the mirror smiled slowly.
Claudia stopped playing. "Can't you hear the difference?"
The Italian girl - Luisa, according to her name tag - shook her head and simply stared, eyes wide, pupils dilated.
A rabbit hypnotized by a snake, thought Claudia. And I'm the snake.
Luisa's classmates were watching avidly, probably glad it was someone else on the receiving end. A wave of depression washed over her.
No matter what she did, how many times she demonstrated the difference in phrasing, in bowing technique, Luisa couldn’t seem to grasp it. The other two students in this group, Josef and Jasha, had been no more adept. Perhaps they were just too young - Luisa was only nineteen, and probably away from home for the first time. By that age, Claudia had already been to Paris, New York, and Berlin and won three major competitions …. She had also been able to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the drop of a hat.
She sighed and glanced at her wristwatch. Much to her relief, the time allotted for the class had almost run out anyway - just as well, she could feel a headache coming on.
She forced a smile and glanced round the classroom. "Well. I see our time is up. That will be all for this morning. Thank you."
The little sob of relief from Luisa made Claudia's heart sink. Had she really been so unkind? But her sympathetic look went unnoticed as the Italian girl fled to the safe anonymity of her companions.
Claudia stowed her violin in its case and snapped the lid shut. Then tucking it under one arm, head held high though she felt like curling up into a ball, she strode from the classroom ….
She had only been back in her room for a few minutes when there was a knock on her door. Annoyed, she finished swallowing the two paracetamol tablets and called out, "Who is it?"
"Bethany," came a woman's voice. "May I come in?"
By the time Claudia had placed the voice, a familiar face framed by long blonde hair was peering gingerly round her door.
So. Her name was Bethany. Claudia shrugged and gestured. "Please."
The blonde opened the door wider and came in. She was carrying a violin case. "I got you a loaner." She held out the case.
"A loaner?" Claudia crossed the room and took it.
Bethany nodded. "One of our local Patrons used to play but no longer does. He was glad to loan us his violin for the duration of the Seminar."
Claudia unlatched the case and opened it, then stared dumbfounded at the contents. "But this is …. "
"A Guarnerius," finished Bethany. "So please be extremely careful with it."
Claudia looked up sharply, but saw at once that the young woman was joking.
Gently, she eased the orange-brown instrument from its satin lining and traced the fingerboard with her fingers. She bent her head and inhaled deeply. The familiar scent of centuries-old wood and oil varnish wafted up. She smiled and plucked a string, relishing the quality of tone.
"Wonderful!" Her hands, she noticed absently, were trembling.
A throat clearing brought Claudia back to her surroundings, and she flushed slightly. "Thank you." She smiled warmly at the young woman, whose green eyes, she noticed, had become slightly glazed.
"You … you're welcome," stuttered Bethany.
Claudia's attention returned to the wonderful violin she held, and when she next looked up, the blonde woman was gone.
CONTINUED IN PART 2