Love Story (untitled), Chapter 1
by Ali Katz
Pain in her ears woke her. Then, everything hurt, every joint and muscle. Her very skin burned. When she tried to move, the cold hit her.
Groggy, Melanie opened her eyes half-mast against a mid-afternoon light while waiting for her limbs to respond and the fog to lift from her brain. What was she doing lying in bed, stiff and hurting—alone—in the middle of the afternoon? Where was Josh?
"I'm here, Baby." Light as air, his voice carried on a breeze from the open window. A third story window. Impossible. A ringing in her ears grew louder; she must have misheard.
Pushing herself up, she scrabbled for the comforter only to grow more confused by what she wore. A dress? Melanie never wore dresses except to perform. She hadn't performed in months. The thin fabric bunched around her hips. The hose sagged. She gathered the bedclothes, buried herself in layers and began to shiver.
"Josh?" The word croaked from her aching throat.
"I'm here." Barely audible, directionless, but definitely his voice. The man himself was nowhere to be seen.
She swung her legs off the bed, and as she stood, a wave of dizziness struck. Catching herself with one hand against the footboard, she avoided falling then stumbled to the window.
A thick crust of ice coated the shelf of snow on the sill. When did it snow?
Disturbed, she pulled the sash closed, turned away and froze. A wild glance around the room revealed dirty glasses, plates of uneaten food, a mess she would never consciously allow and had no memory making. Had Josh done this?
Then she caught her reflection in the mirror over the vanity and stared in horror. How long had she been lying in bed? Puffy eyes stared back from a face she barely recognized, red, chaffed, the lips, dry and flaking. Stringy, unwashed hair hung limp on her shoulders. The dress, ugly, black, unfamiliar, wilted on her frame. And she stank; she needed a shower. The prickling of a thousand insects crawled over her skin, growing unbearable as the blankets warmed her.
Her tongue felt like sandpaper and tasted like desert. Shivers turned to quaking as she reached for one of the half-empty glasses. The blankets fell to the floor. Melanie followed. How did this happen? She couldn't remember. What day is this? A breath caught in her throat and stuck.
Something had happened, but every time she tried to focus, her brain fogged. A deep pain erupted in her chest.
"Josh!" she called, but her voice barely squeaked past her tightened throat. "Josh where are you?"
"I'm here, Baby."
His arms came around to embrace her from behind. Her eyes fell closed. "Have I been sick?" Of course, the aches, the shivers, she was feverish. She'd been sick.
"Try to remember."
Her mind snatched at fleeting thoughts, but they evaporated so quickly. "I don't remember anything. How long was I asleep? Your voice is strange. Why do you sound so far away?"
"I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere until you say. What's the last thing you remember?"
Wincing, she took a deep, cleansing breath and tried to summon a memory. "I waited dinner. You were late." When did that happen? How much time had she lost?
"Yes. I stopped to get you flowers."
Flowers. Her lungs locked; a low, pitiful sound emerged. "You knew I'd be angry. I was. I was mad." She moaned and floated back into his arms.
And through them to the floor. Shaken, she stared at the ceiling. She remembered the bell ringing in the middle of the night, walking down the stairs, grumbling and rehearsing what to say, thinking Josh had forgotten his keys again. Instead…
"Yes, what is it?"
"I'm Officer Nadine Madden. There's been a terrible accident."
Five years later
"Daniel, get down here." Russell was using the damn speakerphone again. The voice sounded hollow, barely intelligible. His annoyance, however, came through loud and clear. "Will you stop by the booth? Tell the cellist to get her cute little butt in here? Dollar signs are floating out the window."
"Right." Daniel set the receiver in its cradle. Not willing to try his manager's patience when it came to money matters, he smiled at the receptionist (mental note: Diane) and the teenage daughter (Emily) she'd brought in to meet him.
"Sorry, ladies, gotta go make some music." The girl tittered when his lips brushed her cheek, but her nervousness was gone. "Great meeting you, Em." He had a gift for putting fans at ease, in spite of himself.
Rule number one: Always leave 'em thinking you're a nice guy.
The door to the isolation booth didn't budge when he tugged. Locked. Naturally. A few steps farther, the next one, leading to the control room, opened. Music from an open mic escaped into the hall.
He let the heavy, soundproof door swing closed behind him. The deep voice of the cello swelled until it filled his head and started his chest vibrating with its power. A little surprised, he had to admit he didn't recognize the piece she played.
A quick glance through the glass and his finger stalled above the mic's switch. Pretty, he thought: long, straight black hair, creamy complexion, black jeans, black silk blouse—very Goth. Goth always drew his eye, especially the long-legged, tight-bodied kind, though he couldn't see the face beneath the hair until she raised her head.
Daniel recognized the woman immediately.
Well, hello again, Mel-an-ie. He moved his hand a few inches to hit record, wishing for video. This he wanted to keep. Everyone always said she was good, but this private solo sent chills through him. Alone in the studio, she played with the uninhibited passion of someone who thought herself unobserved, making love to her instrument.
He stepped back from the glass to watch from the shadows.
Fingers flying over the strings, her whole body thrown into the playing, she breathed as though trying to inhale the sound. Little moans of pleasure escaped her throat now and then, adding their own voice to the music. A dewy sheen covered the exposed flesh of her face, neck and chest.
Beautiful. So, this is what had stolen Josh's heart—all that seductive passion. Strange, he'd missed this aspect of her. On the few occasions she'd accompanied Josh to one function or another where Daniel was present, he'd thought her mousy, too reserved for his old friend. He'd heard talk, though. When she came into the picture during their junior year at Julliard, their whirlwind romance became legend—brilliant young composer falls for stunning, amazingly talented unknown.
Maybe not so strange he'd missed it, since Daniel didn't stick around to watch.
And, apparently, his perception was tainted.
A twinge of guilt prodded him. Where has she been for the last five years? Josh's death must have been hard on her. A better man would have looked in on the wife of a friend.
He studied her through the rest of the unfamiliar Allegro. As the music burst into its final chords, she shuddered and threw back her head with an expression that might be pain or ecstasy—an intensity that sent a ripple of almost sexual arousal sweeping over him. My God, she's exquisite.
The music ended. She fell against the chair, flushed and breathless, exhausted. Her limbs trembled.
Setting the machine to burn the track onto a CD, he gave her a moment to recover then flipped the mic switch.
"Melanie." She jumped at the sound of his voice; her gaze locked on the glass. "They're waiting for you." He angled forward until the light from the booth illuminated his face. He waved, then gave her his sexiest grin, knowing she'd recognize him.
Melanie turned the prettiest shade of fuchsia and waved back.
Jeez, how long had Daniel been there?
Daniel Sanborn, Teen Idol. He remembered her? Surely, not. Their last award ceremony was more than six years ago. He wouldn't recall much about that night, drunk as he was. Someone must have reminded him.
Melanie lovingly replaced the cello in its case. Burdened under its weight while balancing her purse, bottle of water, music folders, she muscled open the door and narrowly missed colliding with Mr. Rock Icon himself.
"Wow, Melanie, are you always so hot? What were you playing? I didn't recognize the piece."
Heat blossomed on her face. So, she'd gotten a little carried away. "You startled me, Daniel." In spite of herself, she couldn't help smiling at those laughing, blue, Peter Pan eyes. The man just refused to grow up despite having seen the last of thirty-five. His body, proudly displayed behind an open shirt and low-slung jeans, drew her attention as intended, but the kohl-lined eyes hooked her. Their black frames turned the blue irises almost sapphire.
A knowing grin graced those full lips. This time, she refused to be embarrassed. "You might have said something sooner. It's one of Josh's."
"Uh uh, you would have stopped playing." He seemed genuinely happy to see her. "Here, let me carry that."
The studio was just down the hall, but she handed the heavy instrument over gratefully.
"Has it been published, Josh's piece? I usually recognize his work."
"No, he wrote this one for me." His claim surprised her. "I thought you were through with classical music. You're still interested in modern composers?"
His eyes narrowed. "Yes," he said, making the word a dare. "Josh was my friend. Of course, I followed his work—and others' as well, believe it or not. Do you think I whored my soul along with my talent? Is that what he thought?"
Whoa. "I'm sorry." She quickly tried to smooth things over. They had to work together for the next week. It was a careless assumption on her part; she didn't know him well, but she'd heard him play. "I didn't mean to imply anything. You know Josh was proud of you." Daniel and Josh were friends long before she showed up. Surely, he knew better than she how Josh felt.
In front of the studio, Daniel reached for the knob and paused. "Forgiven," he said with a grin. "Meet me for coffee after the session."
Coffee? Innocent enough, but his grin was hard to decipher. This move back into the world was a giant step for her, a chance to break from her shell, get accustomed to people again, but she'd rather avoid unwanted advances for a while. No, that wasn't fair. Nothing he'd done so far gave her reason to question his intentions. Anyway, could he be any gayer?
He probably wanted to talk about Josh, which scared her more than the idea of fighting him off. Icy fingers gripped the back of her neck.
"What should I do, Josh?" she murmured then glanced up quickly, realizing Daniel must have heard.
His brow rose to his shaggy hairline.
A blast of cold air greeted them as they left the sweltering, ninety-degree New York afternoon to enter the coffee shop next door to the recording studio. Daniel took Melanie's elbow. With a nod to the kid behind the counter, he guided her to a private booth in the back.
"Move over." He slid into the booth next to her and, slinging his knee onto the bench, turned his back to the room to face her.
"Trust me," he said to her guarded expression. "This is best. Angel will come to take our order as soon as he can get away." He didn't often venture out without security. He loved the fans, but for the most part, they scared the p*** out of him. "How've you been? You kinda fell off the face of the earth. I didn't get a chance to talk to you at the funeral."
"You were there?" Surprise flashed across her face but dulled quickly.
Why should his presence at the funeral surprise her? If nothing else, the business relationship the band had with Josh warranted the group's attendance. Josh, though, was more than a business relationship. Was it possible she didn't know about his and her late husband's more personal affairs?
"Of course. We all went," he said. They'd flown in from the coast just for the day. No one ever discovered how word got out. "A crowd of fans swarmed us as we left the church. We couldn't ask you to deal with them, so we didn't go to the cemetery."
"I don't remember the funeral, Daniel."
"Nothing?" Recalling her state at the church, the fact didn't surprise him. That creepy mother-in-law of hers must have propped her up.
"I didn't know until… No one stayed to… We probably should talk about something else."
"No one stayed with you? Do they call at all?" She wouldn't meet his eyes. He reached for her hand where it lay on the table. "Okay, we'll talk about something else."
They f*****g left her alone. He might have known if he'd given her any thought at all. Josh told him she had no family—Daniel always considered the fact part of the attraction, since Josh's parents were such cold-hearted p****s. Still, his mother should have taken to her. She was, after-all, the instrument which got rid of Daniel. It seems the senior Mrs. Taylor didn't like her daughter-in-law any better. He should have guessed, but at the time, was too busy hiding his own grief to think too long about his rival's problems.
His rival? This woman was not a rival. Even if she knew about him, Daniel couldn't blame Melanie for his own decision to leave. He couldn't even blame Josh. Josh didn't want him to go. In fact, he'd asked him to stay. Asked, begged, demanded…but Daniel's anger wouldn't allow him to listen. He made a preemptive move, knowing who the loser would be in the end.
Rehashing all this did neither of them any good. Josh had an approach to dealing with the kind of stress that kept him from getting things done. Daniel repeated the old mantra aloud. "Pretend you're all right." Good advice, for the most part. Pretend long enough and you can't tell the difference.
She heard. She offered him a weak smile then pulled her feet onto the bench to hug her knees. The move gave her a bit more space and put an effective barrier between them.
The teenaged barista chose that moment to show up for their order. In the few moments it took for Daniel to ask for coffee and Melanie a latte, the tension left her body. "Pretend you're all right" apparently worked for her. No doubt she had practice.
Her gaze wandered the room beyond his shoulder. "Someone over there recognizes you. Or thinks she does."
Now that she'd brought it to his attention, he could feel the eyes boring into his back. Without turning, he asked, "Do you see a big, bald guy in a gray suit at one of the tables? Probably wearing shades." He'd be surprised if Sandy was around. No one knew he'd slipped over here for a few minutes alone with her.
She made a quick sweep of the room and shook her head.
Okay, he could handle this. "One girl, right?"
Resting his arm along the back of the bench, he forced himself to relax. Just a fan and Melanie here to witness what happened—nothing was going to happen.
These irrational fears grew worse every year. Okay, he was a coward, but too many unpleasant incidents made him cautious. Caution was a good thing in this business—or so he continued to tell himself. He needed to get a grip. For a while, he'd tried toning down his appearance, hoping to blend in better, but fans were going to recognize him. He had to get a handle on these panic attacks or he'd be back to drinking, or worse, before his well-earned ulcer had a chance to heal.
Stop drinking. Blend in. What next? Go straight?
He'd been zoning. A quick glance in her direction found his fingers toying with a lock of her hair—more nerves. She didn't seem to mind, but gently lifted the hand aside when she caught him watching.
"You're hands are beautiful," she said.
Josh had thought so, too. Long, strong pianist's hands, he'd called them. Enough!
"So, how are you?" He repeated his original question. Sitting here, across from the woman he'd spent so much time anguishing over, put him in a constant state of deja vu—perhaps too much blast from the past.
"I'm okay. I've been teaching, but won't be going back in the fall. If I don't get back in the circuit soon, no one will remember me."
Footsteps approached from behind. He turned his head slightly to find a young woman standing politely off to the side, waiting for his attention.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said. "I know how rude this must be, but I'd kick myself a thousand times if I passed up the chance to get your autograph. Would you?"
"It's all right, darlin'." It wasn't in him to brush the girl off. He reached for her paper and pen with what he hoped was a sincere enough smile. "What's your name?" They chatted while he composed a message. As she walked away, her excitement showed in the way she scooped her things from the table and practically danced out the door. He laughed to himself over all the fuss. Maybe he should try a little harder to make "pretend you're all right" work for him as well.
When he turned his attention back to Melanie, she said, "That was nice of you."
"Thanks. My craziness is pretty transparent, isn't it? We've had some bad experiences." Then steering the conversation back to where they'd left off, he asked, "Why are you taking gigs like this? Talk to Zankel. You should be playing at Lincoln Center."
She shrugged. "No, this is what I need—work, no pressure. The house costs so much to keep up. Josh loved our house. I don't want to lose it."
She needs to make a living, he thought. Josh's royalties must be thinning out. Everyone's were. Five years is a long time to go with no new sources of income. How'd she get by for so long?
Angel brought their order. Melanie wrapped the paper cup in her hands and breathed deeply of the coffee's aroma. "Thanks for introducing me around today."
"No problem. Tomorrow, warm up in the studio where the producer can hear you. Give him something to remember besides your name. Bring a demo; he'll ask for one."
A rough sigh parted her lips. "Of course. I should have thought… I'm so rusty."
"You'll manage. Don't miss a chance to make an impression. Are you thinking of stretching yourself? There's work in Hollywood." He lowered his head to catch her eye and grinned. "I understand you're outrageously versatile."
She glanced up from her coffee wearing a wry smile. "Anything with strings. They need me for two more tracks this week. That's the plan to date. It never occurred to me to branch out permanently. I like the song we recorded today, though."
"Yeah? I agree. Sam wrote a sweet ballad this time. Not award material—not this one anyway. Those are hard to come by since Josh." The five songs Josh wrote for The Wanton Boys had rocketed to the top of the charts; three won awards for the group—and the writer.
"I seem to remember one or two in the last few years—not so bad."
"Aha, you're paying attention." He'd wondered how far her interest went. Whenever he'd approached her in the past, she'd seemed so aloof. The one time he'd tried to shake her out of it, he hadn't gotten the reaction he planned from her—or her husband. "The guys recognized you from the Grammys. Remember the party after we won for Sweet Silent Thoughts when I tried to kiss you."
She blushed. "I'm surprised you remember. You were drinking."
"True enough. Not drunk though. Besides, even drunk, total rejection is hard to forget. You weren't even tempted—scarred me for life."
Laughter bubbled from her chest. "For about five minutes, maybe. You left with some redhead."
Cute. So different from what he expected. Women mystified him. "Melanie, you noticed," he teased. But had Josh noticed? "How flattering. I needed consoling. Besides…" He grinned. "I'd been drinking."
"You surprised me. Aren't you gay?"
"Oh, what makes you think so? Are you listening to rumors?" He gave her hair a playful tug. "Make it up to me. Have dinner with me tonight."
"And, why not?" More rejection—again, without a second's hesitation—and he was being so charming.
"Do you mean apart from the fact you abuse alcohol and drugs? Aren't you seeing someone?"
"Yeah, apart from that." Heat rose in his own cheeks. The first two didn't apply anymore, but he wasn't about to try to convince her. The last? "What does Ramón have to do with it? I said dinner, Melanie, not dessert. So, why not?"
"I don't date."
"When a gay man asks you to dinner, it's strictly platonic, sugar."
Her only response was to stare at her knees, making him wonder if she, in fact, disagreed with the truth in that statement.
"Are you saying you haven't gone out to dinner with a friend since Josh died? Not healthy."
"Probably not, but I'm happy this way, Daniel."
He wondered if 'happy' was the word she intended. It occurred to him Melanie might not be recovered from her grief. He could see it happening. Josh had a way of reaching into your soul and making it his. What chance did either of them have?
The silence stretched between them. After a few moments, she raised her head, jaw set. "You and the others can come to dinner at the house some night before you leave," she said.
He got the impression the offer had not come easy.