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.
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.
Bethany clattered down the stairs towards the kitchen, feeling as though she'd been punched in the stomach. It was Claudia's ice blue eyes looking at her, *really* looking at her for the first time, she decided, combined with that devastating smile. "Boy, have I got it bad!"
"Pardon?" A passing student was looking at her in enquiry.
Bethany realized not only had she spoken aloud, she had come to a complete halt in the middle of the landing. She felt her cheeks grow hot.
"Oh, nothing. Sorry." She resumed her progress down the stairs and made her way to the kitchen.
"You're late," said Alice grumpily.
Bethany grabbed an apron. "I was standing in for Stephen."
Alice handed her a mixing bowl containing milk, flour, and eggs, followed by a whisk.
"Yorkshire Pudding?" Bethany began obediently to whisk the batter.
Alice nodded. "Roast beef tonight, my bird."
They worked in companionable silence, which suited Bethany since she felt distinctly off balance after being with Claudia. The way she had handled that violin had been one of the most sensual things she had seen in her life!
"So, where did you get to this afternoon?" Alice poured the batter into tins and popped them in the oven.
Bethany brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "Truro."
"What's in Truro?"
"You mean apart from the Cathedral, the art gallery, Lemon Quay -" A pointed look brought the list of attractions to a halt. Bethany grinned and relented. "Sir Benjamin."
Alice's face lit up with pleasure. "How *is* the old goat?"
"Well, let's just say his arthritis doesn't seem to have slowed him down much." Bethany rubbed her right buttock and looked rueful.
"Sir Benjy always did like to pinch the pretty ones." Alice retrieved a pan full of sizzling fat and began to turn the potatoes roasting in it.
"Mmmm. Worth it though. I went to borrow a violin off him, and he came through."
Alice replaced the potatoes in the oven. "A violin? Why? Did someone break theirs?"
"No. It's for Claudia Holbrook."
Alice turned and stared at her. "Bethie! You went all the way to Truro for *her*?"
"It's what Stephen would have done," said Bethany defensively.
"Yes, it is." Alice's mouth quirked. "But I thought you couldn't stand 'Miss Snooty'."
Bethany wondered what Alice would think if she admitted to passionately hating the violin maestro one minute and having erotic fantasies about her the next.
"So," she said instead, reaching for the pile of carrots and beginning to scrape one. "Any idea how her masterclass went?"
Alice sighed. "Another disaster, by all accounts."
That worried Bethany. The Seminar's reputation would be damaged if this went on much longer.
"Perhaps I should sit in on one of her classes. See where she's going wrong," she muttered. "What do you think, Alice? That's what Stephen would do if there were a problem, isn't it?"
But Mungo, Charlotte, and Sam came in just then, and with the mad dash of last minute preparations for dinner, Bethany never did find out Alice's opinion on the matter ....
Claudia rubbed out the semiquaver and penciled it on a different line. B flat was better, she decided. Much better. The harmony hadn't been quite right before.
She reached for the Guarnerius and played the revised bar quietly - a concession to the early hour and the fact that everyone except her was sleeping.
She had been working on the composition she called 'Those Loved and Lost' for several hours and she was exhausted. Sometimes, composing came easily to her, but most of the time it was like getting blood from a stone. She relinquished the violin, stretched the kink from her neck and shoulders, and crossed to the window.
A full moon silvered the inky waves lapping the cove. Perfect as a picture postcard, she thought, and imagined the accompanying message: 'Pendragon Cove. Wish you were here (and I wasn't!)'.
She sighed and wondered for the umpteenth time why Stephen had asked her to teach. Usually, his instincts were right, but this time he had been astoundingly wrong. She just didn't know how to reach these kids and she still had eight more classes to go.
The silence was suddenly oppressive. To her surprise, she had grown accustomed to the laughter and music that each day filled the old house until midnight, when Stephen or the pretty blonde (Bethany, she corrected herself) rounded up the students and shooed them off to bed.
Bethany. She glanced at the Guarnerius, still astounded that Bethany had not only tracked down an instrument of such quality but entrusted it to her care. Especially considering her track record. Absently she stroked the scar on the back of her hand. No, she thought. The blonde woman couldn't have known about that or she would never have let this violin out of her sight.
A rumbling broke the silence, and Claudia realized that it was her own stomach. She should have eaten more at dinner, but her appetite had disappeared when she saw Luisa gazing reproachfully at her from across the room. Now, her erratic eating habits had caught up with her.
She searched her things for a KitKat, then remembered she'd eaten the last of those yesterday. *Damn!* She really was becoming uncomfortably hungry. Only one thing for it. She pulled on her dressing gown and set off in search of the kitchen.
It must be a burglar, thought Bethany anxiously. Who else would be wandering round the house at this time of night?
She wondered whether to wake her roommates, then decided against it. Quietly, she got out of bed, knelt on the threadbare carpet, and pressed her ear to the floor. Yes. That was definitely the sound of drawers being opened and closed in the kitchen directly beneath.
Maybe the burglar believed there were valuables in the pantry. Some people kept theirs in fake baked bean tins, didn't they? Once he finished with the kitchen, he'd probably head for the office and Stephen's computer ....
One of the other sleepers stirred and mumbled softly, and Bethany held her breath. Then the snores resumed, and she considered her options.
Slippers first. She found them and eased her feet into them. Now for some kind of weapon ... for appearance's sake if nothing else. She scanned the moonlit room, her gaze settling finally on the set of fire irons by the empty hearth - one thing about these old houses, in Winter you could always enjoy an authentic log fire.
Okay, then. She grabbed the poker, took one last look at her blissfully unconscious roommates, and crept from the room.
Getting down the stairs without alerting her prey proved difficult. The treads seemed to creak and groan with every step. She made it eventually, though, and turned into the passage leading to the kitchen.
The door was ajar and light spilled out into the passageway. Sounds of stealthy movement came from inside the kitchen. Bethany took a deep breath, gripped the poker more firmly in her sweaty hand, and pushed the door wide.
"Got you, you bastard!"
At her shout, a tall figure whirled, a startled look on its ... no, *her* ... face. Something dropped and smashed loudly on the kitchen floor.
"Shit!" said the ashen-faced figure in the gorgeous silk dressing gown.
"Ms Holbrook!" Belatedly Bethany registered the knife in Claudia's hand, the crumbs on the kitchen worktop, the two slices of bread on a plate .... "I thought it was a burglar."
She gazed at the mess on the stone flags. From the look of the red label and brown paste, it had been a jar of crunchy peanut butter. The violinist crouched, and reached for the shards of glass.
"Don't!" said Bethany. "Let me -" But it was too late.
"Aaah!" Claudia sucked a finger.
"Oh, no!" Bethany hurried to the violinist's side, crouched next to her, and pulled the bleeding finger over for closer inspection. Then she looked up into bemused blue eyes and for a moment forgot who she was and what she was doing. All she knew was that she was holding hands with Claudia and there was a faint scent of ... sandalwood? ... in her nostrils.
Awareness returned abruptly, and she flushed and released the warm hand.
"Um ... sorry. But your hands ... you must take care of your hands."
"I'm all right," protested Claudia. "It's only a small cut. " She straightened and stepped back.
"Run it under the cold tap," ordered Bethany, going to the cupboard where the blue sticking plasters were kept.
Claudia raised an eyebrow at her but obeyed.
"Now dry it ... carefully."
Bethany opened the tin and selected the right size for Claudia's finger. She crossed to the sink beside Claudia, aware again of the scent of sandalwood. Perfume? ... soap? ... shower gel? .... Claudia, naked, in the shower.... *Get your mind out of the gutter, girl!*
"Give it here."
The violinist held out her finger and let Bethany apply some Savlon followed by the sticking plaster itself.
"All done," Bethany stepped away from Claudia with something like relief.
Claudia examined her finger. "Thank you."
"Now for the mess on the floor."
Bethany was brushing glass fragments into a dustpan, trying not to let Claudia's quiet gaze unnerve her any more than she already was, when she heard footsteps.
"What's going on in here?" Alice's voice trailed off as she took in the scene. "Bethany ... Ms Holbrook." She regarded them with astonishment.
"It's my fault, Alice." Claudia's calm voice surprised Bethany, as did the fact the violinist knew the cook's name. "Bethany was rescuing me from my inept attempts to make myself a peanut butter sandwich." She waggled the finger with the blue sticking plaster on it.
Alice's gaze travelled from the injured finger to the poker now lying discarded on the table. "I see." Her tone was sceptical but to Bethany's relief she didn't press the matter. "Well, can you two please make sure you leave my kitchen in the state in which you found it?"
"Of course," said Bethany meekly.
"Certainly," agreed Claudia.
The cook grumbled a little longer, then went back to bed, leaving the two of them alone again. Claudia seemed in no hurry to return to her room, but leaned against a counter, watching Bethany finish swabbing the flagstones with a mop.
As Bethany squeezed out the surplus water and put away the mop, she remembered the reason for Claudia's midnight jaunt. "Do you still want that peanut butter sandwich? I'm sure there's another jar in the pantry."
Claudia shook her head. "I think I've had all the excitement I can take for one night," she said dryly.
Bethany grunted. "You know, if you'd eaten properly at dinner, you wouldn't be hungry now."
"Well," said Bethany, stifling a yawn as her disturbed sleep caught up with her. "If that's all. I'm going back to bed."
She had reached the kitchen door when Claudia spoke her name. "Yes?" She turned and regarded Claudia curiously.
"Thank you for looking after me." The violinist's expression was indecipherable.
Bethany shrugged, then smiled. "You're welcome."
Claudia picked unenthusiastically at her dinner. Under other circumstances she might have enjoyed the Welsh lamb, mint sauce, potatoes, and garden peas, followed by lemon meringue pie, but her stomach seemed to be tied in a huge knot.
She had spent the morning pleasantly enough, exploring the house's extensive gardens and woods, finishing off with a trip to the cove to see what Bethany had founds so interesting about the rockpools the other morning - she'd found a tiny, almost translucent, pink crab, and a starfish. Then, after a lunch of tuna salad and an apple, she had squared her shoulders and given her third masterclass.
It had proved to be every bit as much of an ordeal as the previous two. Worse. She suppressed a wince. This time her humiliation had been witnessed by Bethany.
Claudia had been acutely conscious of the green eyes watching her, had felt her heart sink when a crease appeared between the small woman's brows, and the delicate mouth pursed in disapproval. But it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion - there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. When the interminable class came to its end, she had quite simply fled before the blonde could approach her.
With a start, she realized she had been pushing the same chunk of potato around her plate for several minutes - no-one in the vicinity seemed to have noticed, fortunately. She was tempted to push the plate away, then she remembered Bethany's remonstrance about eating properly and forced down another bite. As soon as she conveniently could, however, she excused herself.
In her room, she paced up and down, feeling even more restless than usual. So I'm an awful teacher, she mused. I already knew that. Why am I even more upset?
Because now Bethany knows it too, her subconscious supplied. Now why, she halted in puzzlement, did that seem to matter so much?
Bethany had intended to speak to Claudia after the master class, but the violin maestro disappeared before she had the opportunity, then last minute administrative affairs monopolized her time until dinner.
One of the pianos badly needed retuning - all that enthusiastic pounding took its toll - so she made arrangements for a local tuner to call first thing. They were also almost out of violin strings, which the young students, bowing for all they were worth, were getting through at a rate of knots. A quick call to Stephen's usual supplier in Redruth - she had tracked down the details in a battered file - ensured supplies would be ready for collection the next day (when she could combine it with other shopping she had planned).
By the time she *was* free to talk to Claudia, the violin maestro had retired for the night. At least, she consoled herself, the woman had eaten a decent dinner, or so Alice said.
An exhausted Bethany ate her own meal, let the exuberant students play chamber music until midnight, then shooed them off to bed. Then she turned in herself.
As she readied herself for bed, she thought back to the masterclass she had sat in on that afternoon. The piece Claudia had been teaching was simply far too hard for the students to tackle in the time available. Why on earth hadn't the maestro realized?
Bethany had just slid between the sheets and murmured goodnight to her roommates when the night breeze wafted the strains of a violin through the slightly open window. It was the haunting piece she had heard the other night, she realized almost immediately.
She cocked her head, listening. Having now heard Claudia play, the identity of the mysterious violinist was unmistakable. That phrasing, that technique ....
The music fairly dripped with grief and loss, and Bethany lay there stunned. On the surface Claudia appeared so cold, so controlled, but underneath it all lay ... this?
She let the music soothe her. Just before sleep claimed her, it occurred to her: If Claudia was so talented, why on earth couldn't she teach others to play like her?
Outside the minibus, the weather was sunny; inside, it was anything but.
I've upset Bethany again, thought Claudia dolefully.
She was running low on oil varnish and resin - the regular brand in Pendragon House's storeroom just wasn't good enough for a Guarnerius. Since she had the morning free, when she learned Bethany was planning a trip to Redruth she had jumped at the chance to go too.
"Tell me what you want, and I'll get it for you," Bethany offered, smiling. "It's no trouble."
"I'd rather get it myself," Claudia had said, and immediately wished she hadn't, for the smile had vanished from Bethany's face, and the blonde woman's tone had become curt.
"I see. In that case, meet me out front at 10.30am sharp. I won't wait." Bethany had stalked off, clearly offended by what she saw as a slur on her competence.
More gorgeous Cornish scenery whizzed by, but Claudia barely noticed it. "Nice morning," she offered, wishing she was better at small talk.
Bethany grunted and changed up a gear. They travelled a few more miles in silence until Claudia plucked up the courage to try again.
"So. Are you from around here?"
That earned her a glance and a frown. "Yes. Why? Do I have an accent?"
Claudia bit her lip, sensing the topic was a sore point. "No ... um, well ... only a little bit," she temporized.
Another grunt. They passed a field full of cows and Claudia fiddled with the sticking plaster on her finger.
"Is it all right?" asked Bethany.
Claudia looked up in some confusion. "What?"
"The cut on your finger."
"Oh .... Yes. Fine, thank you."
A few more miles of lush countryside passed, then they turned inland, away from the blue sea.
"It'll take me a while to do everything I need to in Redruth," said Bethany.
Claudia nodded, pleased the blonde woman was speaking to her again. "So it might be best if we meet up in the pub afterwards."
"Okay. Which one?"
Bethany chewed her lower lip. "The Pick and Shovel, in Fore Street?"
"I'll find it," said Claudia.
She relaxed and stared out of the window, her mood suddenly lighter. A sunny day, a pretty girl, a pub lunch, she thought. Things were looking up.
It took Bethany longer than planned to get the supplies back to the minibus, though old Penhallow had thoughtfully sent a boy with her to carry the heavier boxes. She was hot and sweaty and in need of a cool drink by the time she made it to The Pick and Shovel.
After the brilliant sunshine, it took her a moment to adjust to the gloomy interior. The pub was full of regulars and tourists, and it was a moment before she spotted Claudia. She was sitting in a window seat, looking out.
Bethany elbowed her way through the drinkers to join the violinist. "Carn Brea," she said.
Claudia looked up at her. "I'm sorry?"
Bethany pointed at the vegetation covered granite crag Claudia had been staring at. "That."
Claudia obligingly moved the parcels that had reserved the seat beside her and placed them on the little table.
Bethany nodded her thanks and sat down. "Sorry I took so long," she said.
"No problem." The violinist regarded her for a moment then pushed a menu towards her. "This'll be a change from your cooking."
Bethany smiled. Was it her imagination, or was Claudia trying really hard to be friendly? "It's not *my* cooking. I only help Alice," she said. "But it will be nice not to have to do the washing up afterwards."
She studied the pub menu while Claudia sipped her drink - something clear: vodka ... gin?
"Plaice," she decided. She looked questioningly at Claudia.
"Gammon," said the violinist.
Bethany was about to get up and take their order over to the counter when she felt a hand on her arm, keeping her in place.
"No, let me," said Claudia. "You did the driving."
Startled, Bethany gazed into ice blue eyes whose proximity made her stomach flip-flop. "Oh, okay."
Claudia nodded, removed her hand, and eased behind Bethany's chair. Instinctively Bethany turned to watch the violinist make her way through the crowd, eyeing the chinos-clad rear and long legs appreciatively. She blushed as she realized what she was doing, and looked away. *Down, girl!*
A few minutes later, Claudia was placing a tall, condensation coated glass of orange juice in front of Bethany. "You looked like you could use this."
"Thanks." Bethany reached eagerly for the glass and gulped half of it down in one go. She shuddered slightly as the chill hit her gullet and stomach. "That hit the spot!"
Claudia smiled and resumed her seat. "Quarter of an hour," she said.
"Until our meals are ready. They'll bring them to our table."
They sat in comfortable silence, letting the noise and chatter wash over them, Bethany sneaking a glance at Claudia whenever she thought the violinist wasn't watching.
"I heard you playing last night," she ventured at last. "It was very beautiful.
"Thanks," said Claudia rather stiffly.
"I hadn't ... um ... heard it before. Who wrote it?"
For a moment she thought Claudia wasn't going to answer, then came a quiet "I did."
She gaped at the tall woman. "You compose your own music?"
Claudia shrugged. "Sometimes."
A drinker tried to squeeze behind them, and Bethany was forced to shift her chair forward. By the time she was settled again, the landlord was placing a huge plate of plaice, chips, and peas in front of her and a massive gammon steak with salad and chips in front of Claudia.
"How big *are* Cornish pigs, anyway?" murmured Claudia, her eyes wide.
Claudia gave her a wry smile then unwrapped her knife and fork from the paper napkin and began to cut her steak.
Eating took all of their attention for a while, restricting the conversation to a "Pass the ketchup," from Bethany and a "Could I have the salt please?" from Claudia.
When Bethany had eaten the last morsel, she heaved a satisfied sigh and placed her cutlery neatly on her empty plate. Claudia, she was amused to see, was still only half way through her meal.
"I'm never going to manage all this," admitted Claudia eventually. "Seems such a shame to waste it."
Bethany grinned. "Give it here."
Glancing round quickly to make sure they were unobserved - though what did it matter if they were? - Bethany switched plates and began to tuck in. Claudia's jaw dropped.
"Hollow legs," confided Bethany, between mouthfuls. "At least that's what my brothers say .... Mind you," - Bethany finished the last of the gammon and wiped her mouth - "they can talk. They eat twice as much as me."
Awe flickered across Claudia's face then was gone.
Bethany washed away the salty taste with the rest of her orange juice. "Does your brother eat like a horse too?"
Claudia seemed to stiffen. "I don't have a brother."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I could have sworn your biographical details said ...."
The violinist abruptly pulled her sunglasses from her jacket pocket and put them on, and Bethany found herself gazing at two tiny mirror images of herself, both looking startled.
Whoa! she thought. *What happened? Did the temperature just drop in here?*
She put down her empty glass and sighed. She hadn't spoken to Claudia about her masterclass yet, either. Damn! Now was certainly not the time.
"Well." She made a show of looking at her watch. "I think we'd better get back to Pendragon House, don't you?"
Claudia nodded silently, and reached for her parcels.
"No, not like that." Claudia adjusted the violin beneath her jaw, then played the bar again. "You're sawing at it .... Try it like this. See the difference?"
The boy - Matthew Reece, according to his name tag - flushed and shook his head.
Claudia tried once more to explain. "Treat your violin more gently, like something precious." The irony that her violin *was* precious, one of only 150 in the world, did not escape her.
He tried again. There was an improvement, she supposed. Marginal, but an improvement nonetheless.
His expression changed to one of sheer relief and she cringed inwardly. *Am I such a hard taskmaster?* "Okay," she said, outwardly calm. "That's enough for today."
As the youngsters gathered their instruments and traipsed dejectedly out of the classroom, Claudia stowed the borrowed Guarnerius in its case, and began to collect up the music scores.
Behind her, someone cleared their throat. She paused but didn't look round. "Yes?"
"Claudia." The soft voice was instantly familiar.
Oh God! Could it get any worse?
The trip back from Redruth had been as awkward as the trip there. Claudia knew she had overreacted in the pub, but Bethany's questions about Ben had caught her on the raw. Perhaps if she pretended it hadn't happened ....
"Bethany. Can I help you with something?" She kept her tone light and turned towards the young woman.
"I've been meaning to talk to you about your teaching," said Bethany quietly. "If you don't mind a bit of advice -"
A sudden wave of anger surged through Claudia, so strong it took her by surprise. What the *fuck* did this ... countrygirl know about teaching the violin? She struggled for control and failed miserably.
"That's very big of you, I'm sure," she growled, "but what makes you think I *need* your advice?" She grabbed her violin, stalked past a startled Bethany, and slammed the classroom door behind her.
It started that night at dinner. Jana, a Czech student, said she felt sick and rushed from the dining room. A concerned Bethany observed the hasty exit of the ashen-faced girl, then resumed serving roast chicken to the rest of the Seminar's attendees.
By Nine o'clock, four more - among them maestro Bartalan Domokos - were complaining of nausea and stomach pains. Bethany's heart sank. *We've got a food bug on our hands.*
Back in the kitchen, she found a harassed Alice examining the leftovers from lunch with a frown. The cook looked rather queasy herself.
"Are you all right?" asked Bethany.
"No, my bird," admitted the older woman, before turning and dashing for the toilet situated next door to the kitchen.
Bethany waited outside the door and listened to the sound of retching, then she headed for the office. It took her a few minutes to locate the number of the local doctor, then she picked up the phone and dialled.
After a few rings, someone at the other end answered. "Normal Surgery hours are - "
"I'm sorry to bother Dr James at home," Bethany interrupted the woman - the doctor's wife? "My name is Bethany Tredinnick. I'm at Pendragon House. The Musicians' Seminar is being held here, and we may have an outbreak of foodpoisoning. Could you ask the doctor if he can come as soon as possible, please?"
She remembered Dr James vaguely from last year, when an American cello student had developed acute appendicitis.
There was a brief murmuring at the other end then the doctor himself was on the line. "I'll be there in quarter of an hour," he promised.
"Thank you." Relieved, Bethany replaced the receiver. Then she retraced her steps to the kitchen to see how Alice was doing. Not well, by her pallor.
"Go to bed," ordered Bethany. "I've called the doctor. He'll be here soon."
An hour later, when Dr James had finished examining the twenty-five (the number was growing steadily) people complaining of nausea and diarrhoea, he reported back to Bethany.
"The timing means it's almost certainly something they ate at lunchtime," he confirmed her suspicions. "Probably the salad. Alice is dubious about the watercress .... Not homegrown, apparently. I've taken a sample to send to the lab." He folded his stethoscope and stowed it in his bag. "Fortunately, the symptoms aren't acute. I'd say it's only a mild attack."
"Can you prescribe anything ... antibiotics?"
He shook his head. "We don't do that anymore, Miss Tredinnick. It's much better to let the body deal with something like this unimpeded. Plenty of bed rest and fluids ... that should do the trick. People should improve in a day or two. If they don't, give me another call."
"Oh ... well .... Thanks for your help, and for coming so quickly." She ushered him along the hall towards the front door.
"No problem. You did the right thing calling me. If it had been more serious ...."
She stood on the porch and watched him climb into his car and drive away.
Returning to the office, she stared at the colour coded wall organizer. The course schedule Stephen had so lovingly prepared had had to be revamped once already, to take into account his absence. Now ....
She frowned thoughtfully. 'A day or two' the doctor had said. She'd have to cancel tomorrow's classes. Fortunately, the day after that was Sunday and a relaxation day anyway.
She chewed her lip and removed the T-shaped cards representing tomorrow's classes. If she spread them out over next week .... The schedule would be tight - some days the maestros would have masterclasses both morning and afternoon - but it could be done without extending the course to more than its allotted ten days. Providing they didn't lose any *more* days to the stomach bug, of course. She inserted the coloured cards, then removed them and tried again until the result looked feasible.
It struck her suddenly that at least she and Claudia would be all right - while the others were eating contaminated watercress, they'd been enjoying a pleasant lunch in Redruth. It seemed a lifetime ago. She hadn't seen the violinist since the upsetting confrontation in the classroom.
Bethany sighed. What with a house-wide stomach bug, and Claudia furious with her, she had a sinking feeling that the next few days would see her more than earning the bed and board that was all the Seminar paid her.
When Claudia returned from her early morning jog, it was to a 'help yourself' breakfast and a house in chaos. God must have heard her plea, she thought jubilantly, on learning that the masterclass she had been dreading had been postponed due to a stomach bug.
That burden removed, she was free to think of other things, and discovered she was feeling more than a little remorseful about yesterday. Bethany had only offered to help, and she had practically snapped the poor woman's head off.
As soon as she'd finished her cereal and tea, she sought out Bethany, and found her, looking red-faced and harassed, in Stephen's office.
"Anything I can do to help?" asked Claudia.
Bethany looked as surprised by the offer as Claudia herself was. "Yes," she said, after a moment's thought. "You can help occupy those who aren't sick."
As Claudia returned to her own room she wondered how on earth she was going to do that. The idea came to her when she was unclipping the Walkman from her belt and undraping the earphones from around her neck. She chewed her lip for a moment then shrugged. What the hell, it would pass the time anyway, wouldn't it?
She retrieved the case of music cassettes that went everywhere with her, and began flipping through the classical ones. Nothing contemporary, she decided. And no chamber music. Nothing the students would normally play, and the more passionate and romantic the better.
Which didn't leave much, she found when she'd finished weeding. Ruefully she eyed the tiny pile of cassettes. Perhaps Stephen ....
This time Bethany was in the middle of a phone call. The blonde woman rolled her eyes expressively and gestured at a chair. Claudia sat down and twiddled her thumbs, eyeing her surroundings curiously. Her gaze skipped over the wall planner (not before she had registered that Stephen had colour-coded her blue, though) to a small painting of daffodils and iris that she had given Stephen for a birthday several years ago.
Bethany put down the phone. "Some people!" She let out a breath and composed herself, then turned to Claudia.
"Something you want?" Her gaze was warm.
An erotic thought surfaced, and Claudia averted her gaze quickly. Where the hell had *that* come from? She tried not to blush.
"Um .. yes. Does Stephen have a music collection?" She forced herself to meet Bethany's gaze.
The blonde woman was looking puzzled. "Music scores, you mean?"
"Cassettes, CDs ... that kind of thing."
"Oh. Yes - for his personal use. Do you want to borrow them?"
Claudia nodded, "Please." She didn't elaborate. Already she was having second thoughts. The idea seemed ... silly.
Bethany nodded and searched in a desk drawer for a moment. "Here." She tossed Claudia a key. "This floor. Two doors along from the chamber music library."
"Thanks." Claudia grabbed the key, rose, and turned to go.
"If you need me for anything else, I'll be in the garden digging up vegetables ... or in the kitchen, cooking them," added Bethany with a sigh.
"Okay." Claudia smiled at her then went in search of the cassettes.
Stephen, it turned out, had an extensive collection of music recordings on vinyl, cassette, and CD, and Claudia could happily have immersed herself in them for hours. She restrained herself, however. She had promised Bethany ....
She selected some cassettes, added them to those from her own collection, then carried them through to one of the sitting rooms. Unfortunately there was no sound system, so she went back to her room, retrieved her Walkman and a mains lead, then unearthed the minispeakers from her suitcase. She also grabbed her violin case.
She was setting up the system when some bored students - either they hadn't eaten the dodgy watercress or their immune systems had resisted the stomach bug - wandered in and stayed, curious to see what she was up to. One of them, Claudia realized, was the young Japanese girl from her first masterclass. Kameko, wasn't it?
Claudia held up one of the cassettes - a reissue of an old recording. "This was the first record I was ever given, Kameko. I thought it was wonderful."
The Japanese girl blushed at being addressed directly, but she looked interested. Good, thought Claudia. She popped the cassette in the Walkman and pressed 'play'. The speakers sprang into life, their volume belying their size, and the sound of a piano, followed by the rich tones of a violin, filled the room.
After a few bars, Kameko's eyes lit up. "Wieniawski."
Claudia smiled to see the spark of enthusiasm that had been so conspicuously absent during her own lessons "His Mazurka in D major," she agreed. "Fiery, romantic.... Out of fashion these days." She shrugged. "But it has something, don't you think?"
A few more students had popped their heads around the sitting room door, attracted by the music. Kameko watched wide-eyed as Claudia reached for her violin case, unlatched it, and took out the Guarnerius.
"You can play the Wieniawski?"
Claudia nodded, draped the cloth she used for comfort over the violin, and positioned it against her neck. The heady scent of oil varnish and rosin hit her nostrils, and she began to play.
She hadn't played the Mazurka since she was a girl, and she was rusty. But as she accompanied the dead violinist, the melody and the fingering came back to her. For a while she simply played what Wieniawski had composed, then she felt an urge to improvise, to harmonize, and surrendered to it. Her senses attuned to the resonances buzzing through her fingers and jaw, she began to weave her own melody around the dead composer's in what some, she knew, would consider sacrilege. She shrugged that thought away and gave herself wholly to the music, until it seemed she had only to think of a note and her violin gave it life ....
The recording had ended, and her last note was still hanging in the air when she came back to herself and her surroundings, and realized that the spontaneous clapping was for her.
She placed the Guarnerius demurely on her lap, then grinned at her young and appreciative audience. Belatedly she realized there were beads of sweat on her upper lip, and hair plastered to her temples. She retrieved a tissue and mopped her face.
"Now you," she told Kameko. She held out the Guarnerius and bow.
"Oh no," said the horrified girl, holding up her hands and backing away. "It is too much ... too precious."
"It's a violin," corrected Claudia. "It's meant to be played." She pressed it and the bow into the trembling girl's hands then turned to the pile of cassettes and selected one.
"Do you like Tchaikovsky?"
"Of course." Kameko's eyes bulged as she regarded the instrument she now held. "But I have never played it properly."
"Who said anything about playing properly?" asked Claudia, popping in the cassette. "Busk it. Use this as your backing tape." She pressed 'play' and the sound of a full orchestra swelled around the room.
Kameko was torn, she could see. After all, how many opportunities to play a Guarnerius would she get?
The Japanese girl took a deep breath and looked at Claudia who nodded reassuringly. "Imagine you're standing outside a department store, and some wealthy American tourists are coming along the pavement towards you. Are you going to let them go by without putting some money in your hat?"
"My ... hat?" Kameko's eyes widened, and one of her classmates laughed.
"Yep. It's a scarlet baseball hat .... Has some coins in it - not many, mostly silver, but you can soon fix that. Come on, Kameko. They're getting nearer.. Play them some emotional, deeply romantic music. It never fails." Claudia leaned confidingly towards the girl. "I should know. I was a busker once."
That did it. Kameko took a deep breath, raised the violin gingerly to her chin, and began to play ....
Bethany reached for another onion. While she sliced, she wondered absently where everyone else was - well, everyone not confined to bed.
Earlier, she had seen several students wandering aimlessly around the house. Some had even ventured into the kitchen until she shooed them out. Now, she could hear music, interspersed with applause, cheers, and laughter. She sighed and wished she could join in whatever it was they were doing.
"Need some help?"
A dark head was peering round the kitchen door.
"I thought you were keeping them amused," said Bethany. "And very successfully, by the sound of it."
Claudia shrugged. "They're amusing themselves now. Busking." Her mouth quirked.
"Busking?" Somehow it was the last thing she would associate with the elegant violinist.
"Yes." The violinist laughed. "I've probably wiped out everything they've learned from this Seminar at a stroke!" She stood beside Bethany and leaned on the countertop. "I can chop those," she said.
Bethany wiped a stray hair from her eyes with the back of one hand and glanced at the violinist. "Sharp knives ... violinist's fingers ... I don't think so!"
Claudia raised one eyebrow. "What - you think I'm going to chop my fingers off?"
Bethany continued slicing while she figured out how best to phrase her reply. "Stephen would never forgive me if anything were to happen to you." Nor would I, she admitted privately.
"How old am I? Eight?" Claudia reached past Bethany, grabbed a spare knife and an onion, and began slicing.
The protest died in Bethany's throat as she watched Claudia wield the kitchen knife with the speed and dexterity of a master chef. Apprehension turned instantly to embarrassment.
Claudia seemed to sense her discomfort. "I like to cook for myself when I get the chance," she explained. "Vegetable stir fries, mostly. Hotel food gets tedious after a while."
"Right." Bethany resumed her slicing. So Claudia was used to hotels, she mused. Perhaps that explained her tendency, now much less in evidence, to treat people as servants.
If the truth be told, Bethany was glad of the help, and more than glad of the company. The other volunteers had all succumbed to the stomach bug, and making soup for forty invalids meant a *lot* of vegetables to slice and dice. Now Claudia was on the case, though, the huge pile of freshly dug leeks, carrots, onions, and potatoes was soon dealt with.
Bethany moved on to the next stage - cooking - and soon they were each stirring a huge pot of simmering vegetables.
"I'm sorry if I -" began Bethany.
"About yesterday, I'm - " said Claudia simultaneously.
They looked ruefully at one another. "Maestros first," said Bethany.
The violinist flushed slightly and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry about yesterday," she said. "I know you were only trying to help. But the truth is - " she shrugged, "- you can't help me. Stephen was wrong to ask me. I'm a lousy teacher."
"But you're not!"
Claudia snorted. "Face facts, Bethany. Those poor kids ... I've reduced some of them tears. I can't explain what I want, can't get them to understand. A teacher who can't communicate? I think it's best if I call it a day, don't you ... before I do any *more* damage."
Bethany shook her head violently. "Stephen wasn't wrong," she said. "It's just that you underrate yourself. You think everyone can play the pieces you did at that age, can pick things up as quickly. But they can't, Claudia." She sensed this moment was crucial and chose her words carefully. "Why not try setting your sights lower. Start them at the bottom rung, not the top. Or try a different angle ... teach them something only you can teach?"
She tasted the soup, added more seasoning, and resumed her stirring. Claudia copied her actions, but Bethany could tell the dark woman's thoughts were elsewhere.
"Why don't you check out the library," she suggested.
Ice blue eyes met hers and for a moment she forgot to breathe. "Uh ... yes." She gathered her scattered wits. "Stephen doesn't just keep chamber music scores in there, you know. There are books on all aspects of music and musicians. The thing is ... I'm sure I saw some tutors in there. Why don't you take a look, see if they can offer you some tips?"
She tasted the soup again. About right, she decided. Belatedly she was aware that the violinist was regarding her intently, an odd expression on her face.
"Why are you helping me?" asked Claudia.
Bethany lifted the heavy pot of soup off the stove and began to carry it towards the table. "Because that's what friends do," she said.
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.
Claudia wandered disconsolately from room to room, picking up and putting down figurines, greeting students, exchanging small talk that she was hard pressed to remember only moments later. Her mind was whirring until she felt almost dizzy.
Can I do this? she wondered, as she fingered a small bust of Beethoven. *Can I start a relationship with Bethany and in a few days just walk away?*
She had done it before, God knows. It got lonely on the road, and sometimes, when groupies threw themselves at her - being openly gay had brought her many admiring female fans - she didn't even try to get out of the way. But those relationships had been uncomplicatedly physical - a quick fuck to relieve tension, nothing more. She suspected, no she *knew*, it would not be like that with Bethany.
There was the additional complication that she would be Bethany's 'first'.
"Hey, Claudia." A woman's voice pulled her out of her reverie.
She replaced Beethoven on the shelf and turned. "Allegra." She smiled at the French cello maestro whose lesson had been so inspirational.
"We're going to play some chamber music after dinner - show these young pups how it's done." The gleam in the amber eyes showed she was joking. "Bartalan's agreed. Karel too. Want to join us?"
For a moment Claudia hesitated. She had yet to join in the after dinner music, and it might be a bit daunting playing with musicians of Allegra's and Karel's calibre .... Then she took a deep breath and made her decision totally on impulse.
"I'd love to," she said.
Bethany watched Claudia and the other maestros play until midnight. The sitting room was so packed with eager and excited students, she suspected they'd used a shoehorn to squeeze everyone in.
The violinist was clearly enjoying herself, blue eyes flashing, even white teeth gleaming whenever she smiled - which was often. Sir Benjamin would have been proud to hear the wonderful sounds being coaxed from his Guarnerius without apparent effort. The Italian master's instrument was in masterly hands, thought Bethany, then she shivered as she wondered what those same hands might expertly coax from her.
She backtracked rapidly. *Maybe I shouldn't get in any deeper than I already am. Maybe it's better not to risk getting hurt .... After all, how can I let her go in three days?* The mere thought of Claudia leaving made her feel panicky.
Then Claudia's eyes met hers, and once more she felt the lightning bolt go through her, leaving her breathless. She realized suddenly that she had no choice in the matter - *not* to take the risk with Claudia would mean her parents had won. The decision made, her panic eased slightly.
Bethany glanced at her watch, sighed regretfully, then when there was an interval in the music stood up and clapped to draw attention to herself. Mock boos and hisses greeted her actions.
"I know, I know." She smiled apologetically. "But we've got a full teaching day tomorrow and your maestros need their beauty sleep." She avoided looking at Claudia, knowing that meeting her gaze would make her blush.
The musicians began to pack away their instruments and sheet music, and, grumbling good-naturedly, the students began to disperse. Soon the room was almost empty.
Bethany became aware that someone was standing next to her. The scent of heated skin, fresh sweat, and sandalwood, was instantly familiar.
"So," came a low murmur in her ear. "Have you decided?"
Bethany found it impossible to speak round the dry lump in her throat. Then a gentle finger was raising her chin, and she was looking directly into bottomless blue eyes.
"Tonight?" Claudia's voice was soft.
Bethany's heart raced uncontrollably, as Claudia smiled at her. "Yes," she managed.
Claudia could almost taste Bethany's nervousness as they walked up the stairs together and wondered what to do about it. It didn't help that she herself felt edgy - suppose Bethany discovered she didn't like making love with a woman after all?
Unobtrusively, she took a calming breath, and glanced at Bethany. The blonde's pupils were visibly dilated, her cheeks flushed, and the pulse in her neck was beating rapidly. Fear or arousal? wondered Claudia. *Maybe a little of both.*
She opened the door to her room and ushered the blonde woman inside, before busying herself with mundane matters like closing the window and drawing the curtain against the night. As she turned back the sheets on the bed, she was aware of Bethany's gaze burning into her shoulderblades. The tension between them was almost palpable.
We're going to have heart attacks before we even get undressed! thought Claudia wryly. Then a flash of inspiration hit her. She sat on the bed and deliberately rotated her head first one way then the other.
Bethany stepped forward eagerly. "Sore neck?"
"Mmmm." Claudia was relieved Bethany had taken the bait. She *was* slightly stiff from all that playing, but really she hoped that the process of relaxing her muscles would help Bethany to relax her own.
Obligingly, Bethany crawled up onto the bed and, kneeling, positioned herself behind Claudia. Strong thumbs dug into the knots of muscle, and Claudia let her head drop forward and allowed the sensuous groan Bethany's touch evoked to emerge.
"Oh God! You sound so - " Bethany's voice trailed off.
"So what?" Claudia twisted round enquiringly.
"Sexy." Bethany's voice had dropped an octave.
Claudia grinned, then turned and sprawled full length on the bed. If Bethany wanted to continue the massage, she would have to straddle her. After a moment's hesitation, the blonde woman did so.
The thumbs dug in again, and Claudia gasped. She let the massage continue for a moment, then pushed herself up on her elbows and began to undo her blouse. "Skin on skin is better," she explained. But in her haste, she hadn't undone all of the buttons, and the blouse stuck over her head.
"Here, let me help you." She felt hands pulling the offending garment free, then fingers were scrabbling at the fastener on her bra.
Hmmm, thought Claudia approvingly. *She's a quick study.*
Cool air swept over her bare skin, followed by warm breath as Bethany leaned closer. Claudia eased the bra straps over her arms, flung the garment to one side, then lay down again.
Strong fingers resumed the massage, and she let herself enjoy it for a while before rolling onto her back, almost catapulting a startled Bethany onto the floor in the process.
"Oops!" She grabbed Bethany's thighs and pulled her back into position, only now Bethany was straddling Claudia's stomach, and the blonde's gaze, Claudia noticed at once, was fixed on her naked breasts.
"Do you like what you see?"
The blonde nodded, and swallowed.
She tugged at the unresisting Bethany, pulling and positioning the smaller woman until Bethany was lying full length on top of her, still fully clothed.
Claudia gave her a long and very thorough kiss that made her moan in the back of her throat.
After that, Bethany's fully-clothed state didn't last for long ....
Bethany woke to sunlight and birdsong and the feel of a warm body wrapped around hers. I'm dreaming, she thought placidly. *I really like this dream.*
The arm circling her waist tightened abruptly and someone nibbled her earlobe and whispered, "How are you feeling?" Warm breath tickled her ear, and sent her heart racing, then memory returned with a rush.
Bethany's heart slowed as she adjusted to her new reality and decided that it was just fine with her. She did a quick roll call. Bruised lips, sore nipples, some tenderness between her legs, but these minor irritations were more than compensated for by an overwhelming sense of wellbeing.
Gleefully, she rolled over, and presented herself for a good morning kiss. Claudia smiled at her, then ducked her head and obliged.
Claudia paused. "That's good, right?" she teased. She resumed the kiss.
"Mmmm," agreed Bethany.
They broke apart at last, "I thought I was dreaming. It was a wonderful dream." she told her dark haired lover. 'Lover'! Just thinking of the word sent a tingle down her spine.
"So, how do you feel?"
Bethany sensed that Claudia was genuinely anxious but trying to hide it. "Great," she said, puzzled. "A little tender in places, but otherwise-"
The violinist looked dismayed. "Sorry. I got a bit carried away -"
"Hey, don't apologize." Bethany placed a finger to the other woman's lips. "I wanted you to get carried away. Heck, I got a bit carried away myself." Guiltily, she eyed the lovebite on Claudia's neck.
"You're sure you're okay?"
"Very sure." She captured Claudia's mouth again and kissed her until they were both breathless. "What about you?"
"I'm great," said the violinist. "Haven't slept that well in ages."
Bethany decided that on balance that was probably a compliment and didn't protest. Claudia glanced at her, smirked, then leaned back into the pillows.
"So," said Claudia. "I guess last night confirms it then."
"You're definitely gay." She arched an eyebrow significantly.
Bethany gurgled with laughter. "What would you do if I told you I wasn't."
Claudia pretended to consider. "Nominate you for an Oscar?"
Bethany slapped Claudia lightly on the arm. "That's not nice." Then she caught sight of the travel alarm clock on the cabinet next to the bed. "Oh, no! I'm late. Alice will be wondering where I've got to."
"Don't go." Claudia wrapped her arms around Bethany, and began nibbling the nape of her neck in a way that sent shivers down her spine.
"Stoppit!" she said, unconvincingly. "I have to." She squirmed until Claudia released her and then wasn't sure whether to be pleased or sorry that she'd got her way so easily.
Reluctantly she crawled out of their warm bed and began looking for her clothes. Her bra, she noticed wryly, had somehow ended up draped over the doorknob, and her knickers were under the bed. Other items, hers and Claudia's, were lying higgledy-piggledy in various parts of the room. When they had last shared this room, they had neatly folded their clothes before going to bed. They hadn't slept naked either, she mused.
She crawled around on all fours, retrieving items, then realized that Claudia was watching her.
"Oh, yes." Claudia licked her lips. "Pert little bum, jiggling bosoms -"
Bethany felt herself reddening.
"- and of course, there's the black eye (it's turning yellow, by the way) which adds that touch of 'Je ne sais quoi' to the whole effect." Claudia leered.
"Thanks *very* much!" said Bethany indignantly.
"My pleasure." Claudia grinned. "Bathroom's down the hall," she added helpfully, making no effort to get up.
Bethany dressed hastily, ending up with her bra strap twisted, her top inside out, but most items of clothing where they should be. What could you expect with that distracting blue gaze fixed on her?
Claudia clasped her hands behind her head and leaned back against the pillows, patently aware that the position displayed her breasts to advantage.
Bethany gulped and headed for the door. "See you later," she said, or would have, if her voice hadn't given out.
"Later," chortled Claudia.
The first person Claudia saw when she entered the dining room in search of breakfast was a middle-aged man in a dishevelled looking suit.
"Stephen! When did you get back?" She strode towards the Seminar director, uncertain whether to hug or hit him. "And how could you leave me in the lurch like that?" She settled for kissing him on the cheek, his bristles rough against her lips, then took the empty seat next to him.
"I didn't leave you in the lurch," he protested. "I told Bethany to look after you." He craned his neck, clearly looking for the woman who had taken charge in his absence. "She *has* been looking after you, hasn't she?"
"She certainly has!" The exclamation earned her a curious glance and she remembered ruefully just how well Stephen knew her.
He chewed a mouthful of toast and marmalade. "So, I hear you're a great teacher, my dear."
"Been talking to people about me?" Claudia helped herself to orange juice and cereal.
"My favourite occupation." He grinned at her.
She grimaced and poured the milk. How he would react, she wondered, when he became aware of her involvement with Bethany?
She looked up and saw Bethany heading towards their table, a pot of tea in her hands, a huge beam on her face. Uh oh! It looked like she was going to find out any minute now.
Bethany placed a hand on Claudia's shoulder, supposedly for balance but they both knew that was unnecessary, and began to fill Claudia's tea cup. There was, unmistakably, an air of ownership about the young blonde that made Claudia both glow and cringe at the same time. She glanced at Stephen. His eyes, she noticed were twinkling, and he seemed to be suppressing a grin.
"Something funny?" she growled. Bethany glanced at the two of them curiously.
"Uh ... no ... not a thing." His shoulders shook.
Claudia sighed and turned to Bethany. "Sit with us for a while, will you?"
"Oh, okay." The blonde woman sat down opposite them and waited expectantly.
Claudia cleared her suddenly dry throat. "Er, Stephen ... Bethany and I have something to tell you, before you hear it from anyone else." She turned to the other woman, whose cheeks had flushed a becoming shade of pink. "Isn't that right?"
Bethany nodded silently, and Claudia blew out a breath in relief. "While you were away, well, let's just say that she and I ...." She stopped, uncertain how to phrase it.
"Are lovers," finished Bethany quietly.
Claudia cast her a grateful glance. "That's right." She turned to Stephen. "Now if you have a problem with that - "
"Well, it's about time," said Stephen. "I knew you two would get along." He glanced slyly at Claudia. "And I must admit I was wondering who gave you that."
She followed the direction of his gaze and realized the lovebite was showing. "Oh!" She flushed and adjusted her Hermes scarf.
"And *of course*, I don't have a problem." His voice was reproachful. "You should know that by now, Claudia." He turned to look at Bethany and smiled. "You have very good taste, my dear."
He wiped his mouth on a napkin and abruptly was all business. "Now, Bethany. I understand quite a lot has been happening since I've been away. That black eye you're wearing so dashingly, for example. And I hear you paid Sir Benjamin a visit?"
"Uh, yes." Bethany seemed disconcerted by the sudden change of subject. Claudia reached across the table and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. It earned her a grateful glance.
"Perhaps you'd like to bring me up to date?" continued Stephan.
"Uh, sure. Well, it was like this ...."
While Bethany filled the director in on the details, Claudia contented herself in gazing at her lover and revelling at the touch of soft skin beneath her fingers ....
With Stephen back in the driving seat, the load on Bethany was much lighter. Which wasn't necessarily a *good* thing, she decided. The spare time allowed her thoughts to return to Claudia, to feel the almost physical ache that came from not being near her. Who'd have thought it? Good old dull old Bethany, who had practically resigned herself to old maidhood. One night with Claudia had turned her into a raving sex maniac!
She chopped the carrots a little more forcefully than was necessary and tried not to think about what would happen when the course ended and Claudia went back to London.
"Hey." Claudia's voice surprised her - she hadn't heard the violinist enter the kitchen. "Why don't we do something different tonight?"
The rumour mill had been working overtime - Bethany's overnight absence from her own room had not gone unnoticed - and the kitchen's other occupants (currently Mungo and Charlotte) were eyeing the two of them keenly. Bethany restrained herself from a sudden and rather disconcerting urge to show off, to ravish Claudia there and then on the melamine worktop simply because she could. Instead she kissed the violinist demurely on the cheek, and slipped an arm around her waist.
"Different? Like what?"
"Like getting away from here. We could go to the cinema or something."
There was no film Bethany particularly wanted to see. A thought struck her. "We could go tenpin bowling. It's ages since I've been. You'd love it."
"Bowling." Claudia looked slightly taken aback but recovered quickly. "Oh ... er ... okay."
Her plucky smile made Bethany's heart overflow with affection.
The worst thing about tenpin bowling, decided Claudia, was the shoes. Was it her imagination, or were hers still warm? She suppressed a shudder and tried not to think about who had worn them last or what state their feet were in. Instead, she focussed on a much more pleasant sight - Bethany's rear.
The blonde woman had started her approach, and was jogging along the strip of wood the rubber soled bowling shoes were designed to protect. As she neared the foul line, she swung back her right arm, which now sported a huge blue bowling ball where a hand should be.
Bethany's movements were fluid and finely judged, she crossed one leg behind the other, halted, and swung her arm forward, releasing the ball and letting it fly. Unlike Claudia's first two efforts, which had thudded to earth with a crash that made her wince, the ball touched down smoothly, almost silently, then rumbled down the lane.
"Nice shot," called Claudia, watching the blue ball head straight towards the ten pins at the far end of the lane. Sure enough, it hit them dead centre, spraying the inner pins hard against the outer ones, knocking them all flying into the pit.
"Yeah!" Bethany pumped her arm, and Claudia found her gaze irresistibly drawn to that shapely rear again.
"You're supposed to be keeping score," said Bethany.
"Huh?" Claudia started then hastily scribbled Bethany's 'strike' on the scorecard. When she looked up again, it was to find Bethany grinning knowingly at her.
"Nothing," said Bethany. "Your turn."
She frowned suspiciously up at the blonde, then shrugged and relinquished her seat. As she selected a red ball from the ball rack - choosing a heavier one than that Bethany had used - the blonde took over as scorer.
Claudia's technique wasn't as calculated as Bethany's; she was a creature of instinct. She was rapidly getting the hang of this unfamiliar game, though. Bowling ball firmly gripped with the thumb and two fingers of her right hand, she jogged along the approach towards the foul line, swung, and released. This time the ball kissed the lane's surface smoothly and was only slightly askew.
As she watched the red ball travel towards the ten pins, she became aware that Bethany was staring at her backside, and wiggled it provocatively.
"Hey, I was only getting my own back," called Bethany.
Claudia's laugh was drowned by the clatter of pins falling. The Pindicator lights above the lane showed only two remained upright. Maybe she could manage a 'spare' with her second ball. Feeling pleased with herself, she turned, expecting to hear Bethany's congratulations, then she froze. Two big men were standing next to her lover, towering over her, and the look on Bethany's face was anything but welcoming.
Two strides brought Claudia to the blonde's side. "Are these men bothering you?"
"Um, not really. These are my brothers - Martin and Jamie."
Now that she knew they were related to Bethany, the likeness was unmistakable. Blonde hair, green eyes - but the expression in the eyes of the taller brother - Martin, was it? - was very different from his sister's. He eyed Claudia disdainfully then dismissed her.
"'Bout time you came home, Bethie," he continued the conversation Claudia had interrupted. "Mum's rushed off her feet." His tone was accusatory.
"Why don't *you* help your mother," asked Claudia, reasonably she thought, though the frown Martin threw her told her he disagreed.
"Who's your tall friend?" asked Jamie, who had a bad case of acne, Claudia noticed.
Bethany glanced apologetically up at Claudia. "Uh ... this is Claudia Holbrook. She's staying at Pendragon House."
Martin eyed Claudia up and down. "You look a bit old to be taking music lessons."
Claudia merely raised an eyebrow - these were Bethany's brothers, after all - but Bethany inhaled sharply.
"Don't be rude, Martin. She's one of the teachers."
Jamie leered. "I wonder what she'd be prepared to teach me!"
Claudia frowned and held onto her temper. "Look, guys, we're trying to enjoy ourselves. It's been nice meeting you two, but I'm sure you have other things to do, other places to be."
She waited for them to take the hint, then realized that they were too thick, or too aggressive, or - belatedly she noticed the reek of beer and sighed - too drunk.
"Um, maybe we'd better go, Claudia," mumbled Bethany, apparently realizing her brothers' condition too.
"Aw. Don't spoil the fun." Bethany had been rising from her seat when Martin's hand pressed her back down with an audible thump.
Claudia's hackles were fully erect by now, but a beseeching glance from Bethany held her in check. She watched mutely as Jamie ambled to the ball rack and helped himself to a bowling ball.
His delivery was appalling. The mistimed and badly aimed ball landed with a crash and headed straight for the gutter. The ten pins remained standing, and the ball disappeared into the pit. Moments later, it came rumbling back into the ball return area.
"Must've been something wrong with the lousy ball," protested Jamie loudly.
Claudia watched him select a different ball, and tried not to grind her teeth. "Let me take care of this," she murmured so only Bethany could hear.
"No, Claudia! You could get hurt. You don't know what my brothers are like when they've had few ...."
"I'll be fine. Trust me."
"So," said Martin, his hand still resting heavily on his sister's shoulder. "How come you two girls aren't with anyone?" He leered at Claudia. "Waiting for the right guy to come along?"
Claudia grimaced. "I have to go to the loo," she told him. Bethany blinked forlornly at her. "Hey. I'll be right back," she reassured her.
Once she was satisfied Martin and Jamie were no longer watching her, Claudia changed direction and headed for the manager's office.
"I think you should know," she told the uniformed man with his feet up on the desk, "there are two guys in Lane 7 who aren't wearing regulation bowling shoes."
"What?" The manager got to his feet at once, summoned a burly minder, and set off for Lane 7. Claudia smiled at his departing back and ambled after him to watch events unfold.
The manager and his assistant approached the offenders politely at first, gesturing at their feet. As Claudia had surmised, though, Martin and Jamie weren't open to persuasion, and soon a shouting match was underway. A stunned Bethany gaped at the unfolding drama, then turned, clearly searching for something or someone.
Her gaze stopped when it found Claudia. Her expression spoke more eloquently than words: Did you have something to do with this? Claudia nodded.
Then Martin threw a punch, and moments later, he and Jamie were being hauled out of the Bowling Alley by the scruff of their necks.
The other bowlers, who had stopped to watch the fun, went back to their games, and Claudia came up beside Bethany and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You okay?" she asked softly.
"I *think* so." The blonde sighed and covered Claudia's hand with her own. "Trust my brothers to ruin the evening."
"They haven't ruined it." Claudia squeezed the shoulder gently. "It's only just begun .... Now. Whose turn is it to bowl?"
It was after eleven when Bethany and Claudia finally left the Bowling Alley and set off across the rapidly emptying carpark towards the minibus. They had barely gone half way when two figures emerged from the shadows.
Bethany's heart sank as the moon chose that moment to come out from behind a cloud and illuminated the men barring their way.
"Martin ... Jamie! What are you doing here?" She became aware that Claudia's arm was around her waist and shrugged it away, hoping neither of her brothers had noticed.
Claudia glanced at her and sighed softly.
"It was you who sicked the manager on us, wasn't it?" Martin was glaring at Claudia. And Jamie - well, Jamie, thought Bethany uneasily, looked as though he'd been poleaxed.
"What if it was?" asked Claudia.
"She's a dyke!" blurted Jamie.
"What are you on about?" Martin looked at his younger brother as if he'd lost his mind. "Our Bethie's no lezzie."
"I meant the grockle, you idiot. She had her arm round Bethie - didn't you see?"
Martin's eyes narrowed as he turned his attention back to Claudia.
"She's a bloody dyke," continued Jamie, his voice becoming shriller by the minute. "God knows what she's being doing to our Bethie!"
Martin frowned at Bethany. "It's not true, is it? You're not really -" his face twisted with disgust and he gestured at Claudia, "- with *that*?"
Bethany realized sadly that the moment had come, as she had always known it would, when she must choose between her family and being true to herself. She glanced at Claudia and found the choice was easy.
"It's really none of your business, Martin," she said evenly, "but yes, Claudia and I are lovers." She was aware of Claudia smiling encouragingly at her and took comfort from it.
"Told you," said Jamie.
"Hang on a moment." Martin's face was blotchy, a sign Bethany recognized all too well. He was about to lose his temper. "I don't understand."
He stared directly at her and she thought wistfully of childhood days when she had admired the older brother who always stood up for her. When had he changed, become such a bully?
"What about Pete?" persisted Martin. Pete had been Martin's best friend, before his family moved away. "He said you and he were always at it like rabbits."
"He lied," said Bethany.
She felt an arm creeping round her waist and this time didn't shrug it away.
"Get your hands off my sister, you filthy pervert," shouted Martin. "You touch her and I'll break your fucking arm."
"Too late, sunshine." Claudia's tone was provocative, "I've already done far more than just touch her. And she loved every minute of it."
"Claudia, no!" said Bethany. But it was too late.
With a cry of rage, Martin flung himself at the violinist, who released Bethany and seemed almost to dance out of Martin's way.
It's all my fault, thought Bethany, her heart pounding so loudly she could almost hear it. *He'll break her fingers, ruin her career, and it's all because of me.*
"Martin," she screamed. "Don't hurt her."
Helplessly, she watched her brother swing wildly at Claudia ... and miss. There was a loud crunch as his fist hit Jamie, who had been creeping up behind Claudia. Blood poured down Jamie's shirtfront and he clapped one hand to his nose.
"Having fun, boys?" Claudia's eyes were sparkling, and Bethany stared at her in amazement. Not only was the violinist defending herself easily, she seemed to be enjoying it. Energy fairly crackled off her.
"Get in the minibus, Bethany," ordered Claudia. "I'll be with you in a minute."
The dark haired woman's words from earlier came back to her. 'Trust me,' she'd pleaded. And suddenly, Bethany did.
Leaving Claudia adopting what was presumably a kickboxing stance, keeping her precious hands clear of any danger and using her legs and feet to deflect Martin's increasingly wild blows, Bethany ran towards the minibus. She had barely opened the door when she heard a loud 'ooof', followed by the sound of fleeing footsteps.
By the time she had put the key in the ignition and got the engine going, the carpark contained only a solitary figure, standing with arms folded and eyes squinted against the glare of the headlights.
Bethany pulled up beside Claudia, reached over and opened the minibus door. "Fancy a lift?"
Claudia laughed and climbed into the passenger seat. "I fancy you. Will that do?"
Bethany drove out of town and turned the minibus onto the coast road. "The perfect end to the perfect evening," she said dryly.
"Oh it isn't over yet. I have something in mind for when we get back."
Claudia's hooded gaze sent a rush of heat straight to Bethany's groin ....
That night Claudia made love to Bethany slowly and very tenderly, knowing that the confrontation with her brothers must have stirred up deep emotions. On the trip back, they hadn't talked much about what had happened, they talked about Claudia's skill at kickboxing and traded salacious banter instead, but she suspected, knowing Bethany, the hurt would surface soon.
Claudia had been lucky, she knew - her parents, supportive as always, had accepted her sexuality as they did everything else about her. What must it be like to come from a family, a community, that hated who you were, insisted you deny an essential part of yourself?
When Bethany climaxed at last, her ecstatic cry soon gave way to deep wrenching sobs that tore at Claudia's heart. She pulled the small woman into her embrace and held her close.
"Let it out, Bethany," she told her. "You'll feel much better once it's out."
"Oh God, Claudia," sobbed the young woman. "Once they know I'm gay, my parents won't ever want to see me again .... I can never go home."
Claudia rubbed Bethany's back, hoping the gentle rhythm would soothe her. "If that's true, then it wasn't your home. It's where you lived, that's all."
The sobs turned to hiccups while Bethany considered this. For a while it seemed to help, then her sobs started up again.
"It hurts." Bethany whimpered and curled up, as though trying to relieve a physical pain.
Claudia held her tightly." I know, sweetheart," she said. "Believe me, I know."
She had just finished playing Bartok's Second Violin Concerto and the applause was still ringing in her ears. It had gone brilliantly, she thought, as she retreated to the haven of her dressing room, went behind the screen, and began peeling off her drenched evening dress. What a shame Ben hadn't been there to witness it, though - his front row seat had been conspicuously empty. She sighed and wondered what had delayed his flight.
She sponged herself down at the tiny sink, then slipped into a blouse and chinos. On the dressing table, beside her Guarnerius, was the obligatory flamboyant bouquet. She picked it up and immersed her nose in it. Typical. It had no scent whatsoever.
A familiar knock came at the door. "Come in, Oscar."
Her young PA peered round it. "Claudia." His mouth was working, his expression bleak. She took one look at him and her heart went into freefall.
"Claudia ... terrible news ... plane crash ... Atlantic."
His words seemed strangely fragmented and to come from a great distance ....
When she became aware of her surroundings again, it was to find herself huddled in the corner of a dressing room which looked like a hurricane had trashed it. Her throat was so hoarse, she could barely speak - they told her she had been keening for several hours - and her left hand stung. The cut on the back of her hand was so deep it required several stitches; the battered Guarnerius could not be so easily repaired.
Her world had ended then ... or so she believed. She and Ben had helped each other through the grief after their parents' death - it had brought them even closer together. Now, there was no one she could turn to so she simply shut down, took to wandering through the long days and sleepless nights like a zombie. At first, reactions had been patient, sympathetic even. Another plane crash? What a terrible tragedy. Later had come irritation; finally, people simply grew tired of waiting for her to 'get over it' and moved on. Rather apologetically, Oscar applied for, and got, a PA job elsewhere. And Claudia found herself alone, a gaping hole where her heart used to be.
All that had changed, she realized suddenly. And the cause wasn't hard to find. She gazed down at the tearful woman in her arms with something like awe and tightened her grip. A whimper of protest made her relax her hold. "Sorry," she murmured, stroking the blonde hair.
"S'okay," came the snuffled reply.
Eventually, somewhere around 4 am, Bethany drifted into exhausted sleep. Claudia, however, lay awake thinking until it was time to get up. For the first time in a very long time she was making plans for the future.
"You've missed one, my bird." Alice dropped a dirty coffee cup into the sudsy water.
Bethany acknowledged it with a grimace. "Thanks."
Washing up was about all she was capable of this morning. Last night's crying jag had left her feeling exhausted and slightly numb. At one stroke, all her roots had been severed. Her past was irrelevant, her future a blank. She was a piece of flotsam bobbing wherever the tide took her. She sighed, aware of the cook's concerned glance, but reluctant to tell her what was wrong.
Her mind seemed to be over the place - one moment she was imagining her parents' appalled faces as her brothers told them the news, the next she was remembering making love with Claudia ....
With a sinking feeling, Bethany wondered whether the violinist had tired of her already, of the complications their relationship had brought with it. When Bethany finally surfaced from sleep, the violinist had been thoughtful, her good morning kiss affectionate rather than passionate. They hadn't spoken much over breakfast, and since then Claudia had been tied up teaching ....
Charlotte barrelled into the kitchen and screeched to a halt, startling Bethany out of her reverie.
"The police are here!" The teenager's voice was excited. "They're talking to Ms Holbrook."
"Claudia?" With a mumbled apology to Alice, Bethany peeled off her rubber gloves and hurried out of the kitchen.
She glanced at the grandfather clock in the hall as she passed it, and noted that the violinist's morning masterclass should have finished ten minutes ago. Sure enough, when she peered round the classroom door, it was to find Claudia alone with two men, the younger one wearing police uniform.
Bethany's heart skipped a beat, and she cleared her throat. Instantly, three heads turned towards her. Claudia's blue gaze was warm, and she held out a hand. Before anyone could object, Bethany took it and let the violinist pull her close.
It can't be too bad, then, thought Bethany, gauging her lover's reaction.
"This is Bethany Tredinnick," said Claudia.
"Ah," said the older man in plain clothes. "Their sister."
Bethany's heart rate shot up, and she found herself unable to do more than stutter. What trouble were her brothers making for Claudia now?
"It's okay," soothed Claudia. "Jamie and Martin pressed an assault charge against me, but D.I. Breage here," - she indicated the man in plain clothes, "- says he's decided not to proceed."
"It wasn't an assault, it was self-defence," said Bethany indignantly. "I witnessed the whole thing. If anyone were to press charges, it should be Claudia."
"We realize that now," said Breage. "To be honest, I suspected it was just a malicious charge when your brothers came in to the station this morning. They were," - his expression was distasteful - "in a bit of a state."
"I'll bet," muttered Claudia under her breath.
Bethany knew all too well that once her brothers got hold of something they were reluctant to let it go. Once Claudia left Cornwall, left her - her heart seemed to clench in her chest at the thought, and she pushed it away - they might leave the violinist alone, but there was no guarantee. She turned to the Detective Inspector.
"I'm worried my brothers might try to hurt Claudia. She's a famous violinist, you know and Martin threatened to break her hands. Is there anything you can do?"
Breage looked thoughtful then turned to the uniformed policeman. "What do you think, PC Sithney? A little word in their shell-likes? A warning that should anything happen to Ms Holbrook in the future, they'll be the first on our list?"
The PC nodded sagely. "That ought to do it, sir."
Breage smiled at both women. "Consider it done." He turned to go, then paused and looked back at Claudia. "Ms Holbrook, may I just say that I sincerely hope you don't think the Tredinnik brothers are representative of Cornwall as a whole. I apologize if you got that impression. Most of us have managed to drag ourselves into the twentieth century."
"Thank you," said Claudia. "I appreciate that."
Breage paused at the door, his hand on the doorknob. "Oh, by the way. I caught a recital you gave four years ago in the Wigmore Hall. The Brahms Concerto in D. It was brilliant. Simply brilliant." He beamed at her and disappeared out the door, PC Sithney hard on his heels.
Bethany stared after the two policemen, her eyes wide. "Will wonders never cease?"
"You mean the fact I gave a brilliant recital?"
"No, silly!" Bethany rolled her eyes. "A Cornish copper with a broad mind and great taste in music."
Claudia hugged her. "You're too hard on your own countrymen, you know."
"Perhaps," said Bethany, leaning into the hug and feeling more anchored than she had all morning.
A quiet throat clearing made both women turn. "Er hum. Am I interrupting something?" The Seminar Director was standing in the doorway.
"Stephen," said the violinist. "No. Come in." Bethany was pleased to note that, rather than releasing her, Claudia pulled her closer.
The Director looked concerned. "Is everything all right, Claudia? Alice said the police wanted to talk to you .... I got here as soon as I could."
"Everything's fine," said Claudia. "We're both fine."
His frown cleared and he nodded. "Just thought I'd check."
"Thanks. I appreciate it, Stephen."
When he'd left them alone again, Claudia turned to Bethany. "It's like Piccadilly Circus in here." Her breath was warm against Bethany's cheek. "Let's go somewhere we won't be disturbed. There's something important I want to say to you."
Bethany felt her new found feeling of security drop away. "Oh, okay, "she said reluctantly.
The walk to the cliffs and down to the cove had been a fraught one, with Bethany badgering Claudia every step of the way.
"Why can't you just tell me now?"
"Because I can't." Claudia wanted the setting to be just right. She had pictured the romantic scene, she and Bethany standing on the narrow margin of golden sand that fringed the cove, the blue sea as their backdrop. When she got there the image abruptly disappeared. The tide was in. Oh well, she thought. At least there was no one else around.
She stopped on a slab of rock just above the tideline, and turned to face the anxious green gaze. Surreptitiously she wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt. God. She was even more nervous than before a performance!
"Bethany. In two days, when the course ends, I have to go back to London -"
"You dragged me all the way out here to tell me something I already know?" Bethany bit her lip and studied the waves lapping the slab.
Disconcerted by the blonde's reaction, Claudia took a breath and started again. "While Stephen was away, you took on a great deal of responsibility ... for the Seminar ... for us."
"The maestros and students."
"I see." Bethany's voice was stilted.
She's as nervous as I am, thought Claudia, and decided just to cut to the chase. "So ... I've been thinking about this a lot and I want you to be my PA." She grinned expectantly.
Emotions flashed across Bethany's face too fast for Claudia to follow. Then a blank mask replaced them.
"I appreciate the sentiment, Claudia, but you don't have to worry about me. I'll be fine," said Bethany stiffly.
Claudia blinked in confusion. "Oh, okay. Maybe there's some other job on my staff you'd prefer. But as my PA there'd be no problem with you coming on tour -"
A raised hand - it was trembling slightly, she noticed - stopped her.
"You want me to come on tour with you?"
Claudia felt a headache coming on and rubbed her forehead. "Of course." The hiss of the waves and the crying of the gulls seemed abnormally loud.
"So, let me get this straight," said Bethany, carefully, "when this course ends, you expect me to come with you?"
Claudia felt suddenly unsure. "Um ... that was the idea." Her heart sank. What arrogance! She had just *assumed* Bethany would want to come. Her carefully laid plans, her freshly made dreams began to shrivel.
"As - what, precisely?" The green eyes were intent.
"Well, I thought primarily as ... as my lover?" Claudia's voice cracked.
At the word 'lover', Bethany's hand went to her mouth. Her small but audible gasp raised Claudia's hopes again and her headache eased.
"Surely you knew that?" She closed the distance between them and wrapped the smaller woman in a hug. Bethany burrowed into her chest as if she intended never to come out again. Muffled sobs shook her frame.
"Oh, sweetheart. I've made a mess of this, haven't I?" Claudia flushed with embarrassment.
"... anything ... pity ...," came a mumble.
Bethany raised her head from its safe harbour against Claudia's shoulder. Her eyes were red, the eyelashes damp, and her nose was running. "I want to be with you more than anything," she sniffled. "But I thought -" her eyes filled with tears again and she gulped, "- thought you were only asking me to be your PA out of pity."
Claudia sighed and dug in her pocket for a handkerchief. The blonde took it gratefully and blew her nose.
"Pity! Where did *that* come from?"
"Well, you must admit, we're hardly a matched pair. An experienced and talented violinist, who's travelled all over the world. And a naïve little waitress who's lived in the same stupid Cornish village all her life and now has to leave because her bigoted family can't stand queers."
"Even if I agreed with your description, which I don't," said Claudia, "it's not about that."
"No?" Bethany gazed up at her. "What is it about then?"
Claudia stroked a finger down one soft cheek. "Do you think I'd have got through this last fortnight without you?"
"You'd have managed somehow."
"No." Claudia shook her head vehemently. "I was on the verge of drowning. Stephen threw me a lifeline, but I didn't know how to take it. You showed me the way."
Bethany looked doubtful.
"It's true. When my brother died ... coming so soon after losing my parents ... something inside me broke. By the time I arrived at Pendragon House, I'd given up, Bethany. I hadn't performed in public in over a year."
Bethany tried to speak but stopped when Claudia pressed a finger to her lips. "Shhh. Let me say this. I need to say this." She took a breath and composed herself. "Thanks to you, I've discovered I can teach. And in teaching, I've rediscovered my own love of playing and performing. Do you know what a precious gift that is? You've given me that, Bethany."
A rosy flush covered the blonde woman's face. "I have?"
Claudia nodded. "That would be reason enough, but it's not why I want you to come with me. Neither is the fact you believe you can't go home again." She moved the finger under Bethany's chin and gently raised it until their mouths were almost touching, their breaths mingling.
"I know we haven't known each other long, but - " she gathered her courage, "- I think I'm falling in love with you."
She stared deep into Bethany's eyes, and let her own barriers drop, trying to convey her love, her vulnerability, her need ... hoping the other woman would see and understand.
The green eyes misted, and Bethany breathed a single word. "Claudia."
It was enough. There in Pendragon Cove, with the tide lapping at their feet, Claudia pressed her lips to Bethany's, and sealed the promise of their future with a kiss.
A big thank you to my beta readers Tragedy88 and Midgit. Special thanks also to Ketty for her generous help with information about playing
the violin. All accuracies are due entirely to her; any inaccuracies are due
entirely to me. Barbara Davies
A big thank you to my beta readers Tragedy88 and Midgit.
Special thanks also to Ketty for her generous help with information about playing the violin. All accuracies are due entirely to her; any inaccuracies are due entirely to me.