Maren hesitated at the edge of the stage. The Steinway grand shone under the single bank of lights and she couldn’t seem to bring herself to step out there. She wanted to run around the back way and take the lower route into her familiar orchestra pit below the stage. The impulse was overwhelming. She swallowed a lump in her throat and forced herself to breathe. If she backed out now, she’d never get out of the pit.

“You alright?” Cal asked her. He put a hand on her shoulder. “You look a little peaked…”

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” she said, giving him a brave smile.

“Good!” He clapped his hands together. “Then show me what you’ve got!” He jogged out onto the stage, then down the steps into the first row.

Maren took a breath, squared her shoulders, and strode toward the piano.

“Woo, woo woo!” Cal cheered from the audience seating. Maren felt her cheeks begin to burn, though she was trying not to laugh. She stopped by the piano.

“Are you trying to make it sound like a full house?” she asked.

“Yep! Is it working?” he retorted cheerfully.

“Yes!” She sat down on the bench. Her hands felt clammy and she dried them on her pants.

Cal ceased his cheerleading, and a heavy silence settled on the auditorium. Maren raised her hands to the keys and felt her insides begin to tremble. I can do this, I can do this, she chanted to herself. She pressed down on the first chord.

Notes followed one another and the Steinway sang under her hands. Music burst out of its open top, flying toward the rafters to cascade back down in a wash of lovely harmonies. She had picked a Tchaikovsky piece she used to play back in her college days because of its familiarity. She didn’t have to start from scratch, which was good since the show was in a week. Maren snuck a glance at Cal and was pleased to see open admiration on his features, and she stretched herself, throwing the notes around with gusto. Everyone would be so stunned to see her performing…

Everyone…

And she faltered.

First, there was one missed note, then, two, and then the entire movement came apart at the seams, a nightmarish reproduction of every one of her other failed stage attempts. Maren couldn’t help the sudden onset of panic, and she scrambled about the keyboard, trying to get the damage under control, trying to conceal the mistakes among other calculated notes, and it was no longer Tchaikovsky, no longer music. It was noise. Sheer, ugly noise. Her fingers felt like they were twisted around each other, trying to find notes that evaded her. At last, she gave up, and the cacophonic sound came to a dissonant halt.

Maren let her hands drop from the keys. She leaned forward until her head rested on the piano top. “Cal–” she said, the syllable soaked with self-doubt.

“Not one word,” he said, and she looked up to find him standing beside the piano.

“I–”

“I said not one word. Not one self-deprecating thought.” He sat down on the bench next to her. “Play with me for a bit.”

“What?”

“Play a little duet with me,” he repeated, settling himself next to her.

“You play?” she asked. She was stunned. Everyone knew the theatre manager didn’t do music.

“A little, now let’s go,” he chuckled. “I’m sure you know The Trout.

“Of course, yes,” she said, and to her amazement, he began to play the top hand. Rather proficiently, too, she noted as she raised her hands to the keys. Cal grinned at her as she came in with her part.

“Now take the melody,” he said, and they switched parts. Maren found herself grinning back at him as she mimicked his gusto in the lower register. Cal nudged her with his shoulder, then launched into an intricate variation. Maren gawked at him as she kept up. He just grinned. They switched again, and it was her turn to come up with something. So she did. Cal threw back his head and laughed, meeting her every step of the way. His glee was infectious and Maren found herself giggling as they swapped themes and variations.

“You can do this, Maren,” Cal said over top of their music. “You just need to relax a little. It’s not a test. It’s music. It’s something you love.”

Maren felt that tiny seed of hope begin to sprout. “You might be right,” she conceded.

He winked at her. “You know I am.”

They lost themselves in the music, and Maren sat back with astonishment as the piece wound around to the beginning, and then to the end.

“That was fun,” she said with a smile. “More fun than I think I’ve had at the piano in a long time.” She turned to find him much closer than she realized. The butterflies came back, but it was a different feeling as she looked into his eyes.

Cal leaned in and kissed her, and to her surprise she found herself eagerly kissing him back.

* * *
This is part of an ongoing serial story — catch up via the Serials page!

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