Disclaimers - See Part 1.
PENDRAGON COVE - PART 3
It was Sunday morning before Claudia found the time to investigate the library. Pendragon House was unusually quiet - those well enough to be up and about were out, the rest were still in bed (or in the desperate queues for the loos) - when she wandered along the corridor and opened the library door.
Bethany had been right. Stephen's tastes were eclectic. Books on the lives of forgotten composers nestled next to handbooks on the care and maintenance of various instruments; manuals on music composition and teaching fought huge dictionaries and reference books for shelf space. She carried a couple of teaching manuals to a battered wooden table and chair, sat down, and began to read.
From time to time, she glanced out the library's single window. The sky was a brilliant blue, and white clouds scudded across it. Bethany had volunteered to take some of the fitter students sightseeing on the minibus. She had invited Claudia too, but knowing the library was waiting for her, the violinist had declined. Now she found herself regretting her decision. It wasn't the sights of Cornwall she minded missing, she admitted to herself, so much as the blonde woman with the warm smile.
Sheesh! Get a grip. She took a deep breath and returned to her books ….
When next she surfaced, it was to realize she was hungry. Anxiously, she checked her watch. Shit! She had promised Bethany she would take care of lunch, but if she didn't get a move on …. She hurried to the kitchen.
Bethany had prepared packed lunches for the fit, and huge containers of soup for the invalids, so there wasn't that much to do.
"Make sure you reheat the soup thoroughly," she had instructed. "We don’t want them getting another bug on top of the one they’ve already got."
"Yes, Ma'am .… No, Ma'am."
Claudia's droll reply had earned her a smile and a gentle rap on the knuckles that made her laugh out loud. Was it her imagination, or did her knuckles still tingle?
She grinned at the memory. The woman Stephen had once jokingly dubbed 'the Terror of the Concert Halls' - henpecked by a bossy young blonde! What would he make of it?
She found some matches and lit the stove, then began searching the capacious cupboards for bowls and soup spoons ….
"We're here." Bethany put on the handbrake and turned to face her passengers. " It's a bit of a haul but worth it. There's a stunning view from the top - south across Mount's Bay to the Lizard, west as far as Mousehole."
An excited buzz went round the minibus at her words and some students fingered the cameras hanging round their necks. Bethany unstrapped her safety belt and got out. The students gathered round her like ducklings following their mother.
"Right. Let's go." She set off up the hill.
As they climbed, she felt the pull on unused calf and thigh muscles, and wondered belatedly if this was such a good idea. These were music students, not hill climbers - they'd be aching all over by tomorrow. But the sun was warm, the breeze refreshing, and the sky blue - apart from that bank of grey cloud on the western horizon. And the view from the top was magnificent .… She waited for the panting students to catch up, then pressed on.
"Careful," she called. "Used to be lots of tin mines around here." She guided her charges around an unfenced hole. And then they were at the top, and she was turning to gaze out into the distance, letting the magnificence of the view take her breath away.
For a moment there was silence, punctuated only by the trilling of a lark and the distant cry of the gulls, and Bethany found herself wishing Claudia were with her. The strength of her longing startled her.
She checked her watch. Claudia should be serving the soup about now. If someone had told her a few days ago that Miss Snooty would be doing something so mundane .… She had misjudged the violinist, she acknowledged, projected her own feeling of inadequacy onto her. Was that perhaps what Mum and Dad, Jamie and Martin were doing, every time she brought up the subject of the Musicians' Seminar?
A furious whirring and clicking of camera shutters broke her reverie. Then the silence was well and truly shattered by cries of "My feet hurt," and "It doesn't look anything like a lizard."
Bethany sighed and turned back to her charges. "Right." She clapped her hands for attention. "Let's get back to the bus, shall we. It's lunchtime, so we'll eat our packed lunches. Next stop Godolphin House, to find how the Cornish gentry lived in the 15th Century. And after that, I think, we'll all be more than ready for a Cornish Clotted Cream Tea."
Claudia checked her watch and stared out of the window again. The stretch of gravel in front of Pendragon House remained stubbornly empty. She drummed her fingers on the windowledge. The minibus was only half an hour late, but -
"Something wrong, Ms Holbrook?"
Claudia glanced round to find the cook standing at her elbow, looking tired but otherwise well. "You’re out of bed!"
"Strong as an ox, that's me," said the cook complacently. "Most of the others are feeling much better too. Reckon we got off lightly."
"Good … good," said Claudia. "Alice. Bethany's a good driver, right?"
The cook regarded her curiously. "That's why she's in charge of the minibus, my bird."
"This weather," Claudia continued her train of thought. "It's come up out of nowhere."
The sunny calm of earlier had given way to a keening wind that was busily tearing buds and twigs off the trees that lined the drive, showering branches, bark, and young leaves onto the ground beneath. Now black storm clouds were rolling in off the sea, and Claudia thought she saw a flicker of lightning deep in their heart.
The cook followed Claudia's gaze. "It's banking up fast," she agreed. "It does that sometimes." She frowned. "Looks like we're in for a storm."
'A good driver' thought Claudia. She only hoped Alice was right.
"Damn!" Bethany wrestled the steering wheel over and managed to miss the massive branch with inches to spare.
The back roads in West Cornwall were narrow at the best of times, but now fallen branches had turned a pleasant drive into an obstacle course. She could almost feel the anxiety radiating from the students behind her.
"Not far now," she called reassuringly over her shoulder. "Bet you can't wait to get back, eh?"
The minibus lurched as a front wheel hit a pothole. Bethany swerved to avoid another branch and peered through the windscreen into the gloom. The faded sign for Pendragon House loomed up suddenly, and with a sigh of relief she turned into the mile-long drive. In the distance, the twinkling house lights beckoned alluringly. She changed down a gear and the bus began to climb.
A flash of lightning streaked across the dark sky, followed by the sharp crack of thunder. A single droplet of rain spattered against the windscreen; moments later there was another. Then the rain began in earnest, a deluge that reduced visibility to almost nothing.
Bethany switched on the wipers and leaned forward, peering through the waterfall cascading down the windscreen. The trees on either side of the drive were whipping furiously to and fro now, and she could hear the creaking of their trunks above the engine noise. She sucked in her breath and gripped the wheel tighter. Only a little further.
Then the end of the drive hove into view, and she turned the minibus onto the sweep of gravel in front of the house. The front door was open, she noticed, and people waiting on the porch were silhouetted against the hall light.
"We're here," yelled Bethany, pumping the brake and feeling the minibus begin to slow.
Abruptly, and with a loud crack she at first thought was thunder, the windscreen shattered. Then pain flared redly across her vision, followed by all enveloping blackness ….
"Over here," urged Alice.
Claudia maneuvered her precious cargo through the doorway, careful not to bang its legs against the frame, and lowered it gently onto the couch. Her heart was hammering as she stared down at the pale face and the bruise already darkening one temple. She brushed a rainslicked strand of hair away from a cheek, relieved beyond measure when the movement brought a flutter of pale eyelashes. A moment later, confused green eyes were gazing up at her.
"Ugh -" Bethany tried to sit up, but Claudia pressed her back onto the couch then sat beside her.
"Lie still. You might have concussion." She was dimly aware of the anxious faces behind her.
Alice leaned over the couch. "A roof tile crashed through the windscreen, my bird," she said.
Bethany was clearly startled to see the cook. "What are you doing out of bed, Alice?" She tried to sit up again.
"I said: Don’t move." growled Claudia.
Bethany's eyes widened but she lay back. "Yes, Ma'am." She smiled slightly. "I mean: No, Ma'am."
Claudia rolled her eyes. "Most of those who were sick are up and around," she explained. "Just as those who were healthy are now laid up."
That provoked a chuckle from the blonde woman. "Hey, I'm fine. Splitting headache, but otherwise okay."
"We'll see what the doctor says."
Bethany's gaze became curious. "Claudia, why are you all wet?"
The violinist became aware she was soaked through. Must have been when I was getting her out of the minibus, she thought. She had no memory of it.
She didn't know what had scared her most: seeing that tile crash through the windscreen, or realizing that Bethany was unconscious at the wheel and the minibus was still moving. Fortunately, the bus had already slowed to a crawl, and in the time it took Claudia to reach the driver's side, open the door, and haul the unconscious woman to safety, the edging tiles bordering the flower beds in front of the house had brought the vehicle to a halt.
They'd been damned lucky, she mused.
"You stay with Bethie, my bird," said Alice, pressing a hand on Claudia's shoulder. "I'll call Dr James. It may take a while - he'll have trouble with the roads, I expect. So you two just sit quiet."
Claudia smiled gratefully up at the cook, and soon the onlookers had been shooed from the room and the two of them were left in blessed peace. For some reason, she felt suddenly shy. She peeked at Bethany from under her eyelashes. The green eyes were observing her too.
"She likes you," said Bethany.
Claudia frowned. "Who?"
"Alice. She called you 'my bird'."
"Oh. I thought she called everyone that."
Bethany shook her head then winced.
"Lie still," admonished Claudia.
"Just be thankful she didn't call you 'my handsome' or 'my lover'," continued Bethany after a moment.
"'My lover' might give people the wrong idea. And isn't 'My handsome' reserved for men?"
"Depends on the men." Bethany began to explore her injured forehead with one hand until Claudia stopped her, the contact of skin on skin sending a tingle up Claudia's arm.
"Anyone ever tell you you're bossy?" complained Bethany.
Bethany humphed a little at that and Claudia tried not to laugh. Relief had made her slightly hysterical, she realized.
"You should get out of those wet things and dry your hair, or you'll get a chill," said the smaller woman.
"So should you."
Claudia was contemplating sending someone to Bethany's room for a change of clothing when the door opened and Dr James came in. Reluctantly, she relinquished her place on the couch beside Bethany and let the medic examine her.
He muttered, and clucked, and shone a light in the blonde woman's pupils, testing her reflexes and questioning her thoroughly about possible symptoms. Claudia almost ground her teeth with impatience but held her tongue.
Finally, he patted Bethany on the arm. "Nothing much wrong with you that I can see," he said. "But since you were unconscious for several minutes, someone should keep an eye on you over the next twenty-four hours."
"I'll do that," said Claudia peremptorily.
Bethany grinned up at her. "See," she said slyly. "I told you I was fine."
The web seemed to fill her entire universe. And advancing towards her over it, strand by silk strand, was the largest black spider she had ever seen. The gaze from its multiple eyes was cold, inhuman, greedy, and she knew, without a doubt, that she was its intended prey.
She tried to run, but found she couldn’t move. The web was covered with a glue-like substance, and she was stuck fast. Terrified, she glanced at the spider again. It had paused and was gently tapping a strand with one of its front legs, apparently fascinated by the vibrations from her struggles.
Then its gaze returned to her, and it began to move once more, closer … always closer ….
Bethany screamed, and surfaced with a start, heart racing, head pounding.
"Hey." Darkness hid the voice's owner, who was somewhere nearby. "Are you okay?"
The mattress sagged as someone sat on the bed beside her. Memory came back in a rush. Claudia.
Strong arms held Bethany, tentatively at first, then, when no protest came, more confidently ….
After the Doctor's warning, the violinist had insisted Bethany stay in her room 'just in case'. If someone must keep an eye on her overnight, Bethany had protested, her existing roommates were up to the task. But to Bethany's private amusement, Claudia would have none of it.
"My room would be much better anyway," Claudia reasoned, not quite meeting Bethany's gaze. "It's quieter. Also, I'm a light sleeper, so if you should feel unwell in the middle of the night .…"
Bethany had acquiesced (wondering whether it would have been a different story if someone other than Claudia had made the suggestion) but she almost changed her mind when she realized Claudia intended relinquishing her own bed (she'd changed the sheets herself) and was to use an uncomfortable looking camp bed Alice had found in one of the dusty old basement store rooms.
It had taken her awhile to get used to the different surroundings, and the fact that the room held only one other occupant not three. In the dark, the sound of the other woman's regular breathing had proved comforting yet at the same time oddly unsettling, but eventually she had dozed off.
Now Bethany was extremely glad Claudia had persuaded her.
She relaxed into the hug, felt the pounding in her head ease, inhaled the pleasing scent of sandalwood that she had come to associate with the violinist.
"I was having a nightmare," she croaked into a silk clad shoulder.
"Bad?" The question made Claudia's chest vibrate.
"Pretty bad, yes." The web, she thought suddenly. It was the pattern on the cracked windscreen just before I got hit.
"You’re safe now. I've got you."
You have, thought Bethany wryly. Oh Claudia. You certainly have.
Claudia was - she'd be the first to admit it - brooding when Bethany found her. It was Monday morning, and most of the sick were now well again … which meant the masterclasses were back on.
The books in the library had given her some tips, but theory and practice were very different animals, and she found herself wondering if it wouldn’t be worse now - the students whose 'entertainment' she had supervised had warmed to her and would be expecting that much more.
"Come with me."
Claudia frowned at the blonde woman, who now wore a sticking plaster on her temple and had developed a striking black eye. "Should you be up?"
"I'm not doing anything strenuous," protested Bethany. "Well? Are you coming or not?"
Claudia sighed but let herself be led. "Where are we going?"
"Your class isn’t 'til this afternoon, right?"
"Right," said Claudia.
"So I thought we'd sit in on Allegra's class."
"What?" Claudia halted abruptly. "She won’t like that. She and I .…" She blew out a breath. The French cellist had hardly exchanged two words with her since the Seminar began. Why should she? They came from different worlds, moved in different circles, and anyway the cellist had been rushed off her feet covering for Stephen ….
"She's fine with it," said Bethany, leading the way towards the classroom.
Claudia gathered her scattered wits and stumbled after her. "You asked her?"
"Of course. It's only good manners." Bethany glanced back at her. "Hurry up," she chided. "We're late."
Glumly, Claudia trailed along behind the bossy blonde, and followed her into the crowded classroom. As they eased along a row to two empty chairs, their progress was followed by looks of surprise from Allegra's students, and Claudia felt her cheeks grow hot. She stifled the urge to turn round and head back the other way.
They had barely sat down when Allegra herself came in, her amber gaze sweeping over the audience and lingering on Claudia for a moment. Was that a faint nod of acknowledgment? wondered Claudia. The cello maestro's gaze swept on, and the lesson began ….
"Are you okay?" Bethany frowned at her companion. Claudia's blue eyes were glassy, and her thoughts were clearly elsewhere.
"Huh?" Visibly pulling herself together, Claudia glanced at her. "I'm fine," she said.
"Then let's get something to eat," suggested Bethany.
They traipsed along to the dining room and accepted a bowl of soup and a plate of ham salad without watercress. As they ate - or in Claudia's case picked at - their food, Bethany's thoughts returned to the cello masterclass.
Allegra had known exactly what to do to get the best from her pupils - when to speak or remain quiet, when to demonstrate or delegate, when to persevere and when to relinquish and move on.
Her pupils clearly adored her and that in itself had encouraged them to try harder than ever before.
Claudia sighed. "I don't think I could ever teach like that." she said softly.
The violin maestro looked so lost and uncertain that Bethany wondered if attending Allegra's class hadn't been a terrible mistake. "'Course you could." she said robustly.
She had come across a file of Claudia's reviews in Stephen's office, and read them eagerly. She now knew the formidable reputation of the dark woman sitting opposite her. What on earth had happened to reduce such a brilliant, confident performer to this?
Claudia was looking at her from suddenly hooded eyes, and Bethany realized, to her horror, that she had spoken her last thought out loud.
"I'm sorry," she stuttered. "That was really rude. It's none of my business -"
But Claudia didn’t look angry, merely sad. "It’s true," she said softly. "I was brilliant, confident. Took it all for granted too." Her laugh held no amusement. "Well, I soon learned, didn't I?" She gave up all pretense of eating and pushed her plate away. "Can't perform. Can't even teach. Maybe it's bad luck, for smashing up my Guarnerius."
Bethany gaped at her. "You smashed up a Guarnerius?"
"It put up a good fight," said Claudia dryly.
Bethany watched the other woman rub the scar on the back of her left hand.
Claudia tracked her gaze. "String snapped - caught me." Her expression became sombre. "I suppose now you know you'll want the loaner back?"
Bethany blinked in confusion then it dawned on her - Sir Benjamin's violin. "Oh!" she said. Claudia's gaze on her was intense and she realized suddenly that how she reacted to this was important to the violinist. "I'm sure you had your reasons," she said carefully. "And it was your violin." She paused. "You wouldn’t do that to someone else's instrument, would you?"
Claudia's blue eyes warmed. "No," she agreed. "I wouldn’t."
"So. No problem there, then."
Unexpectedly, a smile quirked the corner of Claudia's mouth.
"What?" asked Bethany.
Claudia shook her head. "Nothing."
Silence fell between them, but it wasn't uncomfortable. Bethany eventually broke it. "Do you really believe in all that 'bad luck' stuff?"
Claudia shrugged. "I …don’t know."
"'Cause I don’t. You make your own luck." Even as Bethany spoke, she wondered if it were true. She hadn't made much of her own life so far. She'd allowed her family to belittle her, to divert her from her dreams. Why else was she still living at home, working in a café, trying to fit in ….
She came back to her surroundings with a start. "Oh, sorry."
"Do you really think I can teach like Allegra?" Claudia's eyes were clouded with uncertainty.
"Not like her, but in your own way - yes. Just don’t expect the students to be as good as you. Bottom rung … remember?"
"As good as me," murmured Claudia chewing her lip thoughtfully. "Right."
The audience of violin students leaned forward avidly. Eager to learn something, or merely eager to see their three unfortunate classmates humiliated? wondered Claudia. She glanced covertly at Ronan, Kameko, and Jana who were sitting on three chairs at the front, violins on their laps. They looked terrified.
She sighed and wished Bethany were here to encourage her, but the blonde woman was occupied elsewhere. Enough stalling, she decided. Let's get on with it.
With a calmness and control, she didn’t really feel, she reached for the music cassettes she had selected half an hour ago with Ronan, Kameko, and Jana specifically in mind. She popped one in the Walkman that she had set up on a table then turned to face the class.
"I can't teach you to play Beethoven's Violin Concerto," she said.
A shocked murmur greeted this stark statement, but she ignored it.
"No one can, despite what you might think or hope. That's something only you can learn … by reading the score note by note, by playing it over and over and over again. There are no short cuts, no magic tricks. Accuracy and speed comes from effort and practice …. Put in the hours, and you'll reap the rewards. That I can guarantee."
Disappointed faces looked at one another then back at her.
"But," and here she smiled, "once you've done that, once you've learned the score so thoroughly you can hear every note in your head and your fingers play it automatically, then I can help you."
She began to pace slowly, aware that every head was turning to follow her, their expressions intent, interested.
"When I was a teenager, still learning my instrument, my parents called me 'their little chameleon'. They were wrong." She gestured deprecatingly at herself. "I wasn't little at all."
Kameko chuckled then put a hand to her mouth and looked embarrassed. Claudia smiled at her.
"They were right about the chameleon bit, though. It was something of a party piece for me." She shrugged. "I'd spent so long listening to and watching famous violinists, studying their every move, that I could imitate them. I liked to take each of them apart, find out what made them tick, then try on that approach for size."
Her audience was now so quiet she could hear a blackbird trilling outside the classroom window. "They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery … and that applies to musicians too."
She turned and retraced her steps. "Most creative artists start out imitating the person who most inspired them. Later, we find what we are comfortable with, what suits us, we change our approach, make choices. Gradually our own unique voice emerges."
She halted at the table and tapped the Walkman. "There are as many ways of playing the violin as there are violinists. I have three interpretations of the Beethoven Violin Concerto here. Three violinists, three different approaches. None is 'right' or 'wrong'. They are just … 'different'." She looked at the three students and raised an eyebrow. "Understand?"
They nodded dutifully.
"Listen." She pressed the 'play' button, and the sound of a violin, its tones beautiful, rich, warm, poured from the minispeakers. She had selected the section where the slow movement ended and the finale began. The transition from the static Larghetto to the exuberant Rondo could be wonderfully dramatic and the anonymous violinist was taking full advantage of the fact, playing sensually, with a passion that verged on aggression. Claudia let the Rondo continue for several minutes, then pressed the 'stop' button.
"Who knows who is playing?"
Ronan put up his hand at once. She suppressed a smile and nodded at him.
"Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg." He spoke with absolute assurance.
She nodded approvingly. "That's right. Unmistakable, isn't she?"
Claudia reached for her violin case, unlatched it, and removed the Guarnerius and bow.
"Some critics say Salerno-Sonnenberg models her playing on opera singing … they don’t necessarily mean it as a compliment."
She draped a soft cloth over the Guarnerius, and tucked it beneath her chin, then closed her eyes and began to play. She imagined the celebrated violinist playing, became her, allowed the drama and intensity she felt to flow down her arm, into her fingers, and out through the strings ….
After a few minutes she stopped, lowered her arm, and opened her eyes. Ronan was staring at her in amazement, his mouth slightly open. He shut it with an audible snap and the Adam's apple in his neck bobbed as he swallowed.
"Have you tried to play like her?" she asked him gently.
The Irish lad nodded.
Reluctantly, he stood up, then shuffled his feet. "Um -"
"It's okay," she reassured him. "Go ahead."
He took a deep breath, raised the violin, jammed it against his neck, and began to play the same few bars she had.
She let him play uninterrupted, closing her eyes and simply listening to the emotion, or rather lack of it, behind his playing, then opened her eyes and stopped him. He looked uncertainly at her.
"You need to loosen up," she told him. "You're too restrained, too dry. Try it more like this." She raised her violin and demonstrated.
He frowned, then licked his lips and tried again.
To Claudia's ears, there was an immediate difference. To Ronan's ears too if his slow smile was any indication.
This time she circled him, watching his posture and technique closely. She tapped his shoulder and he jumped. "Relax this a bit." He did as she suggested and resumed playing. "Don’t grip the bow so tightly - you'll wear yourself out …. Make the strokes shorter, hold your wrist more like this …."
By the time she had finished, he was dripping with sweat but beaming from ear to ear.
"What do you think?" asked Claudia.
"It feels much better." He hesitated, suddenly uncertain. "It is better, isn't it?"
She nodded and his smile broke out again.
"Sit down, Ronan. You've earned yourself a rest …." She turned to the other two students, noting with relief that the apprehension on their faces seemed to have been replaced by eager anticipation.
"Right. Who's next. Jana?" She smiled as the fifteen-year-old Czech girl bobbed at once to her feet.
Claudia ejected the Salerno-Sonnenberg cassette and regarded the other two. Hmmm. Pavlova or Perlman? She popped the Pavlova cassette into the Walkman then turned to face her students.
"This next violinist," she began, "uses a much more technical approach. Some critics think her playing is too dry." She pressed the 'play' button. "Now, Jana, listen to this and tell me if you recognize who it is .…"
Bethany lay in a hammock on the back porch, ignoring the steady flow of students traipsing between the house and the garden. She was gazing out at the blue sky and humming quietly to herself when footsteps stopped next to her.
She twisted to see who it was, then smiled up at Claudia. "Hey, there."
"Hey, yourself. How's your headache?"
Claudia regarded the hammock dubiously.
"It's more comfortable than it looks. Try it." Bethany nodded at the empty green-and-white striped hammock next to hers.
To her surprise, Claudia eased herself into the canvas sling and lay back rather stiffly. For a while they basked silently in the warm sunshine and stared at the placid sky - if it weren't for the fallen branches and the minibus windscreen (Bethany had arranged for the local garage to fix it) yesterday's storm might never have been.
"I heard about your class," said Bethany. "The students were buzzing after it. Well done." She hoped that didn't sound patronizing.
"Thanks." Claudia flashed her a grin that made it hard to breathe, then began to wriggle - there was no other word for it - first her legs, then her hips, finally her shoulders .… "Thought you said these things were comfortable!"
"They are. You just have to let yourself relax and sink into them."
Claudia blew out a breath. "Can't. Too much adrenaline … and then there's these." She waggled her left hand at Bethany. The fingertips were red and sore looking.
"Got a bit carried away," said Claudia wryly. "I'm paying for it now." Abruptly she twisted her head sharply to one side, and there was a loud pop as neck vertebrae realigned themselves.
Bethany sat up, and swung her legs over the side of the hammock. "Come on. I can do something about that." She stood up and waited.
"About what?" Claudia gave her a puzzled look but got up too.
Bethany led the violinist out into the garden, towards an empty wooden bench. She stood behind the bench and gestured. "Your stiff neck. Sit."
Claudia raised an eyebrow then shrugged amiably and sat down.
Bethany rested her hands gently on the strong shoulders. "Lean forward."
The violinist did as instructed, her long black hair flopping around her face. Bethany brushed the remaining strands of hair aside, to reveal the nape of Claudia's neck. She took a deep breath, positioned her hands carefully, and began to knead. She went gently at first, but the muscles under her fingers were as taut as violin strings, and soon she was digging in her thumbs, feeling the stubborn resistance before the muscles released their tension.
"Oh God!" came an exclamation, muffled by the curtain of hair.
Bethany stopped instantly. "Sorry. Too strong?"
"No." Claudia's voice was faint. "It's fine. Go ahead."
Bethany smiled and resumed the massage, working out every kink and knot she could find. From time to time, the garden's other occupants - maestros and students who were chatting, sipping tea, playing croquet - would glance curiously at them. She smiled cheerfully at them and continued working on Claudia's neck, shoulders, and upper back, all the while humming softly.
At last, she patted Claudia gently on the arm. "All done."
Claudia leaned back against the bench and gave a languid sigh.
Claudia turned to look at her and smiled. "Much. Where did you learn to do that?"
"Beauty salon. As well as facials, they offered neck and shoulder massages." Bethany walked round and joined Claudia on the bench. She closed her eyes and savoured the feel of sunshine on her eyelids. "Mum had this idea I might be a beautician. I went along with it for a while. It didn’t take though."
"No?" Claudia sounded sleepy, and Bethany glanced at her companion then laughed. "You're falling asleep on me! Should I be pleased … or insulted?"
"Release from tension," said Claudia. "Always does that to me." Her eyes opened and she met and held Bethany's gaze.
The phrasing and the halflidded gaze combined to send a bolt of heat straight to Bethany's groin, and she was suddenly very wide awake indeed.
Does she realize she's looking at me like she wants to …? Her mind skittered over the words 'take me to bed' then backed away again. You started this, said the tiny voice that was her conscience. That massage was a dead giveaway. Now, what are you going to do?
"Bethany?" Claudia's question, though unspoken, was clear.
Bethany felt suddenly on the edge of panic. God knows, since she'd met Claudia, she'd dreamed of this happening often enough, even hoped it would, but now that it was ….
She stood up. "I have to go. Uh … Alice will be wondering where I've got to."
"Oh … okay."
Shit! thought Bethany, as she fled towards the house, aware of the hurt blue gaze on her back. Don’t start what you can't finish. When will I learn?
Claudia sat in her room, cleaning her Guarnerius and restringing her bow with horsehair. That massage! When Bethany had first dug in her thumbs, Claudia had thought she'd pass out from the pleasure of it. She pursed her lips, annoyed with herself. She had clearly misread the signals badly, mistaken friendship for more.
The Fates must be laughing at me, she thought, as she replaced the violin in its case and closed the lid. They never give but they take away. I discover I can teach after all, but lose Bethany. I play the best concert of my life, then learn that my brother is dead -
A knock came at the door. A student probably.
"It's Bethany. Can I come in?"
Surprise robbed Claudia of her voice. "Is that a good idea?" she managed eventually.
The doorknob turned, and the door opened slightly. Bethany stood in the gap, a half terrified, half … pleading? …expression on her face.
Claudia sighed. "Come in," she said.
Bethany took two more steps inside, closed the door behind her, then stood awkwardly - like a student expecting a reprimand, thought Claudia, wondering what Bethany could possibly want to say to her. The words, when they came, were a complete surprise.
"Can we try again?"
Claudia crossed to the window and stared down at the cove, not really seeing it. "Try what again?" Her voice, she was relieved to note, was steady.
"Oh, please. Don’t make this harder than it already is."
The note of anguish caught Claudia's attention, and she turned, folding her arms in front of her like a shield.
The blonde woman was literally wringing her hands. "I got scared. I ran away. But it wasn't you I was running away from, Claudia. It was me."
Bethany crossed the floor towards her but halted a pace away. "Where I come from - " she took a breath "- well let's just say they're not the most broadminded of people. In some ways, they're still living in the 19th century."
Claudia began to see where this was leading. Sympathy rushed over her, followed by relief, and close on its heels a feeling of .. what? … privilege … responsibility ….
"I'm your first," she breathed.
Bethany looked at the floor and flushed a deep red, then looked up again. She nodded and tried to smile. It was almost painful to watch.
"All my life I've tried to be like others, tried to fit in, pretended I didn't have these feelings … and then I met you."
The blonde woman's face crumpled, and she flung herself the remaining distance into the arms Claudia had opened wide. Claudia hugged Bethany so tightly, they both had difficulty breathing but it felt so good she didn't want to let go. Eventually, reluctantly, she relaxed her grip and stood back.
Tears still glittered on the young blonde's long eyelashes, but she couldn't seem to stop smiling. Her face was blotchy, her black eye spectacular, but Claudia thought Bethany had never looked so desirable.
Impulsively, she closed the distance again, and brought her mouth down on Bethany's. The sensation of soft lips against hers made her toes curl, and she had to consciously restrain herself. Slow down. Don’t scare her. She's never done this before -
But Bethany's lips were telling a different story. They parted and invited Claudia's tongue inside, and Claudia was unable to refuse such an invitation. The kiss that followed was not that of a novice.
"I need to sit down," said Claudia, breaking the kiss at last. "Before I fall down!" She laughed, and Bethany laughed too. They sat, almost primly, side by side on Claudia's bed.
"So," said Claudia, once she had her breath back, "where did you learn to kiss like that?"
"Boys," admitted Bethany. "My brothers' friends, mostly. I worked hard on my technique - part of the pretence, you know?" She glanced at Claudia and flushed again. "Their kisses never made me feel like yours just did, though."
"Good," said Claudia smugly.
Bethany examined her hands. "So. What happens next?"
"Whatever you want to happen," said Claudia carefully. "We can take it slow, if you’d prefer."
Bethany nodded. "That might be best. This is all a bit overwhelming." She glanced at Claudia.
"Okay, slow it is." Claudia hugged the blonde briefly, then let go. "But don’t forget .… I'm leaving on Saturday, you know."
"I know." Bethany's gaze filled with sadness.
It was early the next evening before Bethany managed to get Claudia all to herself again. The violinist had had masterclasses all day, and in between she was to be found in animated discussion with her students. Not that Claudia had ignored Bethany. The glances they had exchanged over the engrossed students' heads had made Bethany tingle all over.
She revelled in the unfamiliar sensation and wondered if Claudia felt the attraction between them as strongly. The signs were that she did. But what did Bethany know? Presumably the older woman was used to such … casual flings. Presumably also, Claudia would have no difficulty moving on when the Seminar ended.
Bethany sighed and hoped she could manage it too. Why can't I just enjoy what I have without wanting more? she wondered. Why can't I live in the moment? She took a deep breath and resolved to do just that from now on.
By the time Claudia's final class was finished, Bethany felt she could wait no longer. She slipped a message under Claudia's door and set off to her own room for her walking shoes. She was changed and ready when Claudia, clad in a sweater and chinos, was knocking at her door.
It was fortunate her three roommates were elsewhere, because Bethany practically dragged the dark haired woman into her room and pulled her into a passionate kiss. When at last they came up for air, Claudia's breathing was ragged.
"Your note said -" The violinist's voice was a croak, and she cleared her throat and tried again. "I thought we were going for a walk."
"We are." Bethany led the unresisting violinist out the room and down the stairs.
"Where are we going?"
"Along the cliffs."
"Going to throw me off?" Claudia's tone was playful.
"I might." Bethany kept a straight face.
"Huh." Claudia slipped her arm round Bethany's waist, then glanced pointedly at it and murmured: "You okay with this?"
Bethany nodded, surprised and rather pleased with herself. "Mind you, it might be different if a member of my family were within a hundred yards."
They walked through the grounds of Pendragon House and along the path towards the cliffs in thoughtful silence.
"They'd hate me, wouldn't they?" said Claudia. "Your family, I mean." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Probably." Bethany sighed. "They hate anyone who's 'different'."
"Must have been hard for you." Claudia glanced curiously at her. "Why have you stayed with them so long?"
Bethany considered the question. Why indeed? "Fear," she ventured at last.
Claudia frowned. "You don’t strike me as being afraid of anything."
"When I'm with you, I'm not." That earned Bethany a warm smile. "But it's hard not to be afraid when you've been brought up to see the downside of everything, the reasons why you shouldn’t do something rather than why you should. I think it boils down to: If you don’t try, you can't fail."
"You can't succeed either," said Claudia.
They stopped to admire the blue sea, inhale the salty air, and listen to the gulls wheeling raucously above them. The sky was tinged with various shades of rose and tangerine and the air was cooling as the day's heat faded. Claudia moved behind Bethany and pulled her close. Bethany leaned into the welcome embrace.
"I was lucky," murmured Claudia, her breath warm on Bethany's ear. "My parents always encouraged me to 'go for it'. Admittedly, I was obsessed with playing the violin from an early age. But it was hard work - hours of practice, bleeding fingers …." She shrugged. "Without their approval and encouragement, who knows what I'd be doing now."
Bethany craned her head round and peered up at the tall woman. "You talk as if they're dead."
The violinist looked sad. "Three years ago," she said softly. "A plane crash. They were coming to a concert."
"I'm sorry." Bethany brushed her knuckles against Claudia's face. The tall woman's eyes closed at the caress, and the feel of soft skin sent a tingle up Bethany's arm. "But I'm sure even without your parents' approval," she continued, "you'd have found a way, whereas I …." She trailed off.
"Whereas you?" prompted Claudia. "What were your dreams, Bethany?"
Bethany thought back to her younger years. "I wanted to sing," she said softly. "Nothing fancy. I thought maybe I could join a folkrock group, be their singer …."
Claudia hugged Bethany tighter. The difference in their heights meant Bethany's head fit comfortably into the taller woman's shoulder. This, thought Bethany, relishing the feeling of security and support, is what's been missing all my life.
She saw again the excited faces of the other bandmembers, recalled how their first bumbling attempts had set the drummer's mongrel Spot - or was Spot the drummer's name? - howling.
"We called ourselves The Wreckers. Had to borrow our instruments, and didn't survive past 3 rehearsals. Just as well. We were terrible, Claudia … I mean really terrible." She could laugh about it now, but at the time ….
"We all have to start somewhere," said Claudia. "You would have improved with practice."
"I know." Bethany sighed and glanced at her watch. "We'd better get back," she said. "I have to help Alice prepare dinner. It's Toad in the Hole tonight."
Claudia released her, and she missed the warmth of the other woman's body immediately.
"So, why didn't you practice?" asked the violinist as they slowly retraced their steps.
"My parents found out," said Bethany bitterly. She would never forget that painful argument, the slap her mother had given her for 'talking back' - she'd sported a red handprint on her cheek for hours afterwards. "They told me not to be so ridiculous. Said I should get a 'proper job' - until I got married and had kids, of course, then my job would be to look after my husband."
"They told me to be thankful for what I had and not to go wishing for the impossible."
Claudia reached for her hand and squeezed it. "I'm sorry," she said.
"But you didn't give up on your dreams entirely, did you?"
Bethany halted and stared at Claudia. "Sure I did."
"No." In the waning daylight, the dark haired woman was barely more than a silhouette. "Because if you had, you wouldn't be here."
Bethany frowned at that, and digested it as they walked. It was, she supposed, true that she kept coming to the Seminar in spite of her family's opposition. As for her own 'difference' … time after time, her family had tried to mould her into who they thought she should be, but she had always resisted. She hadn't married the boy they chose for her, in spite of diatribes about becoming an old maid. She had always known something was missing, had stubbornly held on .…
And now here she was, walking hand in hand with a world-famous violinist, no less, with this fascinating and sexy woman who desired her. The thought gave her goose pimples.
"Cold?" asked Claudia, wrapping an arm around her.
CONTINUED IN PART 4