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Professional violinist Leila Feran is accustomed to fame as the youngest and first female concertmaster of the Philharmonic Symphony. Driven to achieve ever-increasing heights, she injures her wrist so badly that she may no longer be able to play. While she recovers, she moves in with her childhood best friend, a pianist and beloved orchestra teacher in a small town.
Carene welcomes Leila with open arms and only one condition: no divas allowed. And if Leila can't follow the house rules, she might find herself over Carene's knee...or worse. In between arguments over physical therapy and house rules, Carene's zero-tolerance policy regarding divas results in some old-fashioned discipline that changes into something more.
Will Leila and Carene's new feelings for each other blossom into something wonderful? Or will Leila lose not just a potential soul mate, but also her friend?
The Vivaldi Story Time
Violin Concerto in a minor, RV 356
“No, no, NO!” Leila jumped out of her chair and snatched the violin out of Brittany’s hands. At the piano, Carene frowned at the interruption but stopped playing. They had agreed to respect each other’s methods in front of the students.
Leila tucked the violin, so oddly heavy and clunky compared to her own, and drew the bow across the strings. Instead of every beat played with dreary sameness, the notes danced off her fingers with a toe-tapping whirl. Instead of Brittany’s stolid and semi-correctly placed fingers, Leila’s scurried up and down the fingerboard. An accent here and a crescendo there with an infectious, lilting buildup to a climax followed by a tripping, bubbly skip of the notes downward.
Brittany’s eyes grew wide. She looked at her violin in awe, as if wondering how the same instrument could sound completely different in her teacher’s hands.
“That’s how it’s supposed to sound! Vivaldi wrote this concerto for his students!” Leila raged, thrusting the violin back toward Brittany. “For his beginning students who were too stupid to do anything serious. And you limp through the music every single week without improving a single bit. Do you even look at your violin in between lessons?”
“It’s hard,” Brittany mumbled, glancing over at Carene for help. “I practiced, honest I did, every day for two hours like you said.”
“Good God, do you mean you could be even worse? I was playing this when I was seven! And you’re, what, fourteen now?” Leila flipped the music book back to the beginning page.
“Thirteen, Ms. Feran,” Brittany said timidly. The violin and bow slipped in her perspiring hands.
“Fourteen, thirteen, whatever! If you’re never going to get any better than this, you should just burn your violin and save your parents their money.”
Tears rolled down Brittany’s cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she pleaded. “I do try, but it’s hard and�”
“Then do it again. And do it right this time! From the beginning of that section, and let’s move. Your audition is in only two weeks. Carene?” Leila barked at both of them and returned to her chair.
Brittany gave a stifled sob, drew the back of her hand across her eyes, and put the violin under her chin once more. Carene whispered to her quietly enough that Leila couldn’t hear.
“It’s all right, Brittany, give it a try.”
The music paused. “I’ll back up a few bars and start again.”
The quick look Carene shot Leila before starting to play again was enough to keep her in the chair as Carene played from the beginning. They had talked about Leila scaring students, but was it her fault that the students were hopeless?
Leila seethed in her chair. Carene’s voice was ingratiatingly patient. Probably from all her years teaching the local junior high kids. She was so used to the duds that she no longer could distinguish plodding “progress” from real talent. In fact, she had been the one to recommend Brittany to Leila. Leila had been unimpressed by the reports of Carene’s student and unflattered at the excitement of Brittany’s parents. They were thrilled at Brittany’s chance to study with the former rising symphony-world star who had come to their town to recover from an injury. Leila protested taking an untried student who had never competed in a single competition, but Carene had put her foot down. She was no longer the concertmaster of the Philharmonic Symphony, Carene had told her. At least not for now. It was time to start acting like it.
Carene paused again. “Brittany? You were supposed to come in there. Can you try again?”
Brittany stood in front of the music stand, shaking with sobs. “I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I know I’m stupid, I just can’t get it. I should quit�”
Carene rose from the piano. She took the violin and bow away, set them in their case, held Brittany to her in a hug, and scorched Leila with her glare. Carene nodded her head ever so slightly toward the hallway. Leila’s face colored and her head jerked upward, but Carene narrowed her eyes while patting Brittany’s back.
“There, there,” she soothed while telegraphing with her eyes. Get out. Now.
Leila clenched her good hand and very nearly stomped out of the room. The bedroom door did not slam, but it closed with perhaps more force than absolutely necessary.
“I’m horrible and I’ll never be any good! I should quit!” Brittany sobbed as Carene gave her a tissue.
“Hardly,” Carene said briskly. “Ms. Feran wants you to do your best so you can excel at your audition. You want to join the Youth Symphony, don’t you?”
Brittany’s sobs slowed as she nodded. “They get to have rehearsal every week! And they even have wind and brass and percussion, like a real orchestra!” Her eyes shone at the thought. Then she blushed. “I don’t mean our school orchestra isn’t a real one, just that�”
Carene smiled. “Then you’d better stop crying and keep working, isn’t that right? Think of how nervous you got playing today, and then use it to prepare for the audition. You’ll be a lot more nervous then, won’t you?”
Brittany nodded. “I know I’m not as good as the others.”
“Nonsense! You only get scared more easily. Now I want you to pack up, go home, don’t worry about a thing, and practice as best as you can. If you want a bit of help after class tomorrow I can give you some time. How about that?”
Brittany beamed despite her stuffy nose. “Really? Can you help me, really really?”
Carene gave her shoulder a little push. “Yes, really. Now go on. Your mom must be waiting for you.”
Brittany turned to pack up her case, noticed Leila’s chair was empty, and turned back to her orchestra teacher. “But Ms. Feran�”
“�is not feeling well today. I’ll tell her goodbye for you. Scoot, now.” Carene gave Brittany an affectionate swat on the bottom, and Brittany giggled as she bundled into her coat and left.
“Bye, Ms. Moraghan! Thank you! I’ll practice hard for next time, I promise!” She waved as she headed toward the door.
“Not too much! Don’t neglect your schoolwork!” Carene waved back and closed the door behind Brittany. Then she sighed, walked back to the music room, crossed the hall, and opened Leila’s door. As she’d expected, Leila smoldered like a volcano seconds before eruption. At Carene’s entrance, Leila turned guiltily.
“I can’t help it that she got upset,” she muttered. “It was an easy entrance. And it was the second time she muffed it. You know she’ll never get into any orchestra if she’s not better than that.”
Carene closed the door behind her. Her clipped, abrupt words held none of the kindly comfort she had given Brittany. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t put you over my knee and paddle the daylights out of you.”
Leila scowled. “You can’t use that against me now!”
“What did I say was the condition of you moving in?”
Leila turned away, her back stiff with rage. “I can’t help it if you give me the stupid students! What am I supposed to do when they’re hopeless?”
“Leila. Feran. Brittany may not be up to your oh-so-brilliant Julliard standard, but she is one of the hardest working students I have ever taught. Don’t you dare make her cry again.”
Leila looked up and saw the hard anger in Carene’s eyes. “Sorry,” she muttered, her tone at least partially sincere.
“Thank you for pretending to be sorry. Now answer my question.”
Carene moved to take Leila’s arm, and Leila backed up in alarm. “You said the rules were the same as always. No divas in your house, but I wasn’t a diva!”
“I also said no lying, Leila.”
Leila hung her head, kicking at the bedframe with her heels. “Sorry,” she said, this time with actual remorse or at least a better imitation of it. She hadn’t felt Carene’s paddle since moving in, and it was worth lying to keep things that way. She braced herself by putting her hand on the bed and swore at the pain. She kept forgetting not to use it.
“Show me your hand.”
Leila resisted and put her left hand behind her back, but Carene firmly pinched the fleshy part of Leila’s upper arm just hard enough to make her grudgingly hold out her hand. The wrist bulged with slight swelling, and every nerve screamed with pain.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Leila lied. Then winced as Carene applied pressure on the wrist. “Much, I mean,” she quickly amended. As the silence grew, her bravado faded. “Maybe it does,” she admitted. “I’ll put my splint back on.”
“Painkiller, I think, and ice first,” Carene instructed. “Maybe you need to try the cortisone shots again.” Leila sighed.
“You know I don’t want to take it too much or it will lose its effect�”
“Then you shouldn’t be playing until the doctor says so.”
Sympathy for Brittany, scolding for Leila. It wasn’t fair, but Leila nodded. She picked up the splint from her shelf and headed to the kitchen for her pain medicine and cold pack. None of the fancy medical supplies worked nearly as well as her bag of frozen mixed vegetables. She wrapped it in a dishtowel and applied it to her left wrist, allowing a few tears to escape. It was stupid to pick up Brittany’s violin, but the infuriating girl didn’t understand any verbal instructions. Leila had never had to teach before without being able to demonstrate. Come to think of it, she’d never had to teach any but the best and brightest before. She’d never even realized that a girl Brittany’s age could still be working on the baby concerti. It was like being thirteen years old and still riding a bike with training wheels, for crying out loud!
Leila gulped down the painkiller and allowed the cold to settle into her bones. She had a feeling she would need the cold in more places than her wrist tonight. If only she could keep her temper! If only Carene’s students had any talent.
After the twenty minutes of icing, Leila returned the soggy peas to the freezer and dried off her now goose-flesh-ridden arm. Bundled her wrist into the splint that she hated. Thought for a while and added the sling. Maybe if she looked very injured, Carene would take pity on her.
Leila walked back to the music room to find Carene practicing. A Chopin nocturne, lovely poet-of-the-piano Chopin, light and delicate and lyrical. Even his etudes were works of art. Leila walked up behind Carene and put her good hand on Carene’s shoulder.
“I acted like a great big diva, didn’t I?” she asked.
Carene’s hands stilled on the piano keys. Large, strong hands, the kind that could reach an entire octave plus two. Hammer hands. Not like Leila’s delicately tapered bird-bone hands, snappable and light. Weak.
“What do you think I should do about it?” she asked.
Leila’s voice filled with self-pity. “Well, my arm hurts so I�”
“I’ll apologize to Brittany and be more patient next time.”
“I should think so.”
“I’ll work on keeping my temper.”
Carene swung around on the piano bench and rooted Leila to the floor with a look. It wasn’t angry, not the thunder and lightening of Leila’s out-of-nowhere outbursts that raged at a moment’s notice and disappeared just as quickly. It was a quiet, measured gaze that Carene had perfected from years in the classroom with her students. It left its recipient vowing desperately to do anything Ms. Moraghan asked.
“Leila, we need to wash your hair.”
Leila took a step backward. “What?” Whatever she had expected, it certainly was not that. She put her good hand to her slightly greasy hair.
“It’s too hard for you to do on your own, and I know you’re cheating when you say you do it one-handed.” Carene rose to her feet, and she propelled Leila to the kitchen as if she were one of her own students. “Wait here.”
After only a moment, she returned with a bath towel, shampoo, conditioner, and Leila’s brush. She ignored Leila’s protests and brushed out her hair, then moved the clean dishes out of the drainer. “Bend over,” she commanded.
Leila stifled a small giggle at the first time Carene had given that order to mean hair-washing, but at a swat across the back of her slacks obediently dipped forward to dangle her shoulder-length hair in the sink. Carene pulled out the sprayer to squirt warm water through Leila’s hair, working the shampoo into a sudsy lather.
“Ouch!” Leila complained. She reached up to wipe soapy water out of her eyes.
“If you’d hold still, it wouldn’t hurt as much.”
Leila swallowed another giggle at familiar words used in an unfamiliar way. Better not to laugh with Carene this irritated.
Carene worked the lather through Leila’s scalp, rinsed, and then massaged in the conditioner. Leila’s back started to cramp from the awkward position, but she sighed in pure pleasure.
“Mm,” she said. “That feels good.”
“If you’d listened to me when you first moved in, we could have done this ages ago. It ruins my image to hang out with a slick-haired musician.” At this, Carene joined Leila in laughing.
“The next time I lose my temper, please wash my hair. It will teach me a lesson.” Leila closed her eyes to savor the tingling in her scalp followed by the water rushing through her hair. Her entire body relaxed, even her over-strained wrist muscles. Or tendons, wasn’t it? “Tendonitis” was the official diagnosis. Too many hours of too-intense practicing. The violin was a rat-trap of potential injuries. If it wasn’t tennis elbow in her bowing arm or tendonitis in her fingering wrist or bowing shoulder, it was a large, unsightly hicky just under the left side of her chin that invited catcalls from those not in the know. Had a good night?
“Oh, I’ll teach you a lesson. Don’t worry about that.” Carene shut off the water and draped a towel around Leila’s head. She scrubbed vigorously with the towel, ignoring Leila’s complaints. “You’re the one who doesn’t like hair dryers, so shush.”
Leila shook her damp hair as Carene gave one last pat with the towel. She hung it on the back of a kitchen chair and then picked up Leila’s brush. Ran it through, firmly and efficiently, dismissing Leila’s grandiose claims to pain.
“Stop exaggerating and being a baby. You know very well this doesn't hurt compared to what it could feel like if I were actually trying to hurt you.”
Leila took the hint and closed her mouth. It was the first time Carene had brushed her hair, and the oddity of the washing and brushing in the middle of the kitchen felt both calming and off-kilter.
“There.” Carene set the brush down. “Better?”
Leila hated to admit it. “Maybe.”
“Oh, fine. Yes, my hair feels better. But it’s weird for you to do these things for me.” Leila picked up the towel and dabbed at the dripping ends of her hair. She forgot and tried to do it with her left hand, and a stabbing pain shot through her arm.
Carene took the towel away and blotted the water from Leila’s neck. “Your wrist is never going to get better if you don’t stop using it,” she chided.
“I know,” Leila sighed. “It’s so hard to use my right hand.” She held up her good hand, wishing it were more dexterous. All those years of obsessive practicing had left her with one shoulder higher than the other and not one whole arm in working condition.
“When do you go back to your doctor?” Carene asked.
“I have to check. A couple of days?”
“And your physical therapy? Are you doing your exercises?”
Leila grimaced. “A little, but they don’t do any good. Just moving my wrist around lots of times and using the rubber bands.” She yawned.
“The medicine always makes you sleepy, doesn’t it? Come on. I’ll help you get ready for bed.” Carene headed for Leila’s bedroom.
“What?” Leila followed Carene. She thought�well, Carene had made it sound as if she were in big trouble. Now bed? What was going on? By the time she walked into her bedroom, Carene had already taken out her flannel pajamas. They were roomy, elastic without any fasteners, and easy to slip on and off. Carene had taken Leila shopping after her arrival. Then she had been unable to manage buttons or zippers at all, and they picked out easy-to-wear clothes. The problem was that most of them looked like bright-colored sacks.
Since then Leila had become more adept at using her right hand, but it was slow learning. It didn’t help that she had to do most things one-handed or pay the price later, but she did her best to follow orders. Until she had so foolishly picked up Brittany’s violin today, her hand had recovered enough to put on one of her favorite blouses. It was a flamboyant bright tangerine with darts and pintucks, and the placket contained a row of ridged stick-out loops that tucked around each button. Even with two good hands, buttoning and unbuttoning took time. Tonight it was impossible. Leila fumbled with the buttons one-handed while Carene watched her silently.
Tears of frustration came to Leila’s eyes. She wanted to tear the shirt right off, but it was her favorite. She held her splinted and slung hand to the placket, trying to hold the top button steady enough to unfasten it. The fabric slipped away, and Leila grunted deep in her belly.
Before she knew it, Carene’s nimble fingers ran down her blouse opening each button. Sliding the splint off her shoulder to slip off the blouse and unhook her bra, put her arm through the fluorescent blue sleeve of the pajama top, and put the sling back in place. Unbuttoning and unzipping her pants, helping her to step out of them, and holding out the pajama bottoms. Folding and putting her clothes away.
Leila’s cheeks burned with humiliation. Here she was, dressed and undressed like a tiny child. “I can do it myself,” she mumbled.
Carene’s powerful hammer hand cracked against her bottom, and Leila yelped.
“I can!” she insisted.
She escaped to the bathroom that, thanks to Carene’s help in changing her clothes, she was able to manage on her own. Awkwardly brushed her teeth with the right hand that never seemed quite able to catch up with her left. Most violinists were right-handed, but it was the left hand that accomplished all of the gymnastic feats on the violin. Being left-handed had always been an asset for her, at least until now.
When she emerged from the bathroom, Carene had already turned down her bedcovers, turned off the main light, and switched on the lamp by her bed. Leila looked at Carene in surprise.
“Are you going to read me a bedtime story?”
She meant for it to be flippant, but Carene nodded. “Tell you one, rather. Now get into bed.”
Leila hesitated, but Carene sat on the side of the bed. “Come on,” she said.
As soon as Leila slid under the covers, Carene scooted next to her and held her hand.
“Once upon a time,” she began, and Leila smiled. It was a childish tradition, but it was one of their favorites. Whoever was sick or feeling poorly got to have a story.
“There was a pianist named Carene, and she was going away for her very first time to music camp. She was scared because she didn’t know anyone, but the first day she met a violinist named Leila.”
Leila smiled up at Carene. Need a friend? she’d asked.
“And the girl named Leila went up to the girl named Carene. She could tell Carene was scared, even if she didn’t know it was Carene’s first time at camp, and she stuck out her hand.”
“Need a friend?” Leila chorused with Carene. Carene looked down at Leila and smiled.
“Carene didn’t know it, but she did. So for the whole week the two of them stuck together through mosquitoes and horrible cafeteria food and windy practice sessions outside�”
“�and the annoying trumpet player who kept blasting our ears off�”
“Shh, I’m telling this story.”
Leila snuggled in. “Tell about when we won the contest.”
Carene squeezed her hand. “The music camp had a daily trivia question, and one day it was�”
“What did conductor J.P. Lully die of?” Leila jumped in.
“I said I’m telling this story!”
Leila leaned in closer. “Go on.”
“And Leila and Carene talked about it over breakfast, and they decided it must have been his baton! Because conductors always have a baton�”
“And we won!” Leila exclaimed.
Carene frowned at her. “You want to tell this story, missy?”
Leila shook her head meekly. “I’m listening now, I promise.”
“Well, they were right! Only it wasn’t exactly a baton. It was a big pointed stick that conductors beat against the floor to keep time. J.P. Lully stabbed his foot with it, his foot got infected and had gangrene, and he wouldn’t let his foot get cut off so he died.”
Leila nodded. That tidbit had horrified her for years, and she had shuddered through all of her conducting classes.
“Leila and Carene each won a Coke from the Allegro gift shop at camp, and for the rest of the years they went to camp they always shared the same bunk bed.”
Leila yawned again, the medicine plus the warmth of her bed intensifying the security of having Carene right next to her.
“When Leila went off to be the next big-shot music star and Carene chose to be a little orchestra teacher in Sleepyville, they always kept in touch. And when Leila hurt her hand because she was too crazy�“
“Hey!” Leila exclaimed, now wide-awake.
“�too crazy to practice properly like any sensible human being, Carene was happy for Leila to come live with her while she got better. Except Leila was a very bad houseguest and did everything to get worse instead of better�”
Leila sat up indignantly. “Story time’s over!” she protested. “I’m going to sleep now.”
Carene continued as if Leila hadn’t spoken. “Carene was very worried about her friend because the doctor wasn’t sure if Leila would ever get better enough for everyday life, let alone going back to being concertmaster of her fancy professional symphony�”
Leila wrinkled her nose. She hated this part.
“So Carene made some rules for Leila that Leila didn’t like. Then what happened, Leila?” Carene’s easy, story-telling tone shifted to a more serious one.
“Then Leila decided to listen to her bossy friend,” Leila said with a pout.
“Because what happens when Leila doesn’t listen?” Carene squeezed Leila’s good hand again.
“Night, Carene. Sleep tight. See you in the morning.”
Carene tucked the covers around Leila’s sling and switched off the bedside lamp.
“You know very well what happens, Leila. Good night.”
Leila scrunched up her nose. She preferred to sleep on her side, but the sling made that difficult. You know very well what happens, hm? Maybe. Maybe not.
Carene stood up and patted Leila’s bedcovers. “I think,” she said, “it’s time to take things to the next level.” And when Leila demanded to know what that meant, Carene just smiled and walked out of the room.
“You’re the one who said story time was over,” she said, and she paused before closing Leila’s door. “Sweet dreams.”