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Authors: Karis Walsh

Improvisation (5 page)

BOOK: Improvisation
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“Hello?” The voice answering Tina’s call sounded harried and out of breath. She wondered briefly if she had interrupted Jan in the middle of sex. Would she be the type to stop and answer the phone?

“Is this Jan? I’m Tina, Brooke and Andy’s friend.”

“Oh, hi. I’m glad you called. Did you have a good trip?”

Tina smiled. Jan didn’t
sound
glad. She sounded annoyed. Maybe she’d be just as willing as Tina to meet once, drink a sarcastic toast to Brooke, and then never see each other again.

“Long and boring, thanks for asking. Hey, I have some free time this weekend before I have to settle into my job, so I thought we could meet for drinks tomorrow night.”

“Tomorrow night…That’ll be fine. I’ll make it work.”

Try to contain your enthusiasm.
“Great. About nine? In the Peacock Room at the Davenport?” Tina had spotted the bar on her way into the hotel. Fussy and formal and full of people in business attire. It seemed designed for casual meetings between acquaintances and totally unsuited for long romantic trysts. The ideal way to set the tone for a hopefully brief meeting.

“Sure…What? The Peacock Room?”

“Yes. Is that okay?” Tina asked impatiently. She wondered how she’d make it through an hour with Jan when she could barely tolerate one short phone call. Maybe the alcohol would help.

“Yes. It’s just not the kind of place I expected you to pick.”

Tina heard the slight emphasis on
you
. What the hell was that about? “I’m staying at the Davenport for a few days, so it’s the only bar I know.”

There was a long pause. Tina glanced at her phone to make sure she hadn’t been disconnected. “We’re meeting in a bar in your hotel?” Jan finally asked. Tina could sense some kind of emotion behind the words, but she couldn’t read it clearly. Horror? Disgust? What exactly had Brooke and Andy said about her?

“You’ll be perfectly safe,” she said, her words clipped. “I promise not to ravish you in the lobby or lure you to my room.”

“That’s not what I—”

“Besides, I’ve invited my cousin to join us. He’ll make sure you’re safe from me.”

“No, it’s just…Brooke told me you were staying for a few months, so I didn’t expect you to be living in a hotel. That sounds very expensive.”

“It’s only temporary, until I find an apartment or something,” Tina said. Or something. Like ditching the whole stupid plan and getting the hell out of Spokane.

“You mean you came here without arranging for a place to
live
?”

Tina could hear Jan’s disbelief even over the phone. She was certain Jan was the type to have every aspect of her life planned, down to the minutest detail. “I like to be spontaneous,” she said. By spontaneous, she meant foolish and poor. Paying rent on her Seattle apartment and racking up bills in a fancy hotel. She made decent money at her job, but she could only afford to live in one city at a time. But she wasn’t about to admit any of that to Jan.

“Well, I’m sure something will come up,” Jan said, sounding about as convinced as Tina was.

“Something always does. Say, I think I hear room service at the door,” Tina lied. She needed to get off the phone. Now.

“Okay. See you tomorrow.”

Tina ended the call and dropped onto the bed. That went well. And now she had to call Peter and invite him for drinks. Suddenly, a shower and meal didn’t seem strong enough to erase the stress of the day. Instead, she opened her fiddle case and took out her instrument. She ran a hand over the carved maple, shaped into the barest outline of a violin and painted flame red. She untangled the mess of cords and plugged her headphones into the violin so she could play as loudly as she wanted and no one else could hear. Volume on high.

She started with a simple Scottish tune about bluebonnets, her mom’s favorite lullaby. She played it again, over and over, adding embellishments and trills and double stops. Blending in bits of other songs, changing keys. Improvising until the song was her own, until she was back in control, until she had played out all her feelings except hunger. Only then did she stop playing and order dinner.

 

*

 

Jan hung up and perched on a kitchen stool. Tina had managed to catch her at the worst possible moment. She had been moving her dad’s belongings into her master suite—with its dormer windows and cozy reading nook and high ceilings—and her own things into the small spare bedroom upstairs. He’d need the extra space and the en suite bathroom while he recovered. She didn’t care about the size of the room and she wanted her father to be comfortable, but it was yet another unsettling change in a long series of them.

She had raced to get the phone, expecting a call from the doctor, and managed to bang her shin on the coffee table hard enough to make her want to kill someone. Anyone. She had struggled to control her breathing and her temper while she half listened to Tina, and the mention of a hotel bar had caught her off guard, her thoughts unprotected. Most of the fantasies she had concocted about Tina during Brooke’s botched wedding weekend had started exactly that way. Except
she
was the one who called Tina and invited her for a drink in
her
hotel’s bar. What happened after that—whether in the hall, on the elevator, or in her room—varied, but the overture was constant.

Hearing her fantasies echoed in Tina’s voice had been too much to take, and Jan realized she would have to be vigilant and not let her libido take control. She was stressed by all the recent changes, and even considering a relationship that promised only to be temporary and inconstant was ridiculous. Thank God, Tina’s cousin would be there. Even so, she picked up the phone again and called Chloe. There’d be safety in numbers, the more the better.

Chapter Four
 

Tina sat alone in the Peacock Room, sipping a Jameson on the rocks and rocking her heel in time to the down-bow of a fiddle tune that played in her mind. She had told Jan she chose the Davenport’s bar because it was conveniently located in the hotel, but she secretly loved the ambience of the stuffy room. At first glance, it looked elegant and grand, with wood paneling, brocade-covered walls, and granite-topped tables. The peacock-inspired royals, purples, and deep greens in the fabrics and paint blended smoothly with the dark wood tones and rich leather chairs. But closer inspection revealed the truth. The patterned carpet was worn, the gilded fixtures looked inexpertly spray painted, and the cracked edges of the granite and wood furnishings exposed them as nothing more than veneer. Patrons were invited to stay a short time, enjoy the illusion of depth and luxury, and then move on. Stay on the surface. Exactly the tone Tina wanted to set for the evening.

She wasn’t looking forward to socializing with her cousin, but he had sounded pleased to be invited. She hoped three would, indeed, prove to be a crowd, and Peter’s presence would keep the conversation from turning personal. And, likewise, Jan’s presence would keep Peter from asking Tina about her thoughts regarding his business, because she wasn’t prepared to answer him yet. She had been determined to spend the afternoon planning her PR campaign for his nursery, but instead, she had played her violin most of the day.

The bar’s name had triggered a nagging memory, and she had searched online until she found someone playing Winston Fitzgerald’s version of the Cape Breton fiddle tune “Peacock’s Fancy.” She’d listened to the interpretation and mimicked it on her own fiddle before starting to add her own flair, and then she’d combined her version with the air about bluebonnets she had been playing the night before. A few happy hours later, she had the grace notes and accents just right, and the new medley was her own. Now, she rehearsed it in her mind while she waited, adding tapping fingers to the beat of her heel as she rethought the bridge between the two tunes.

Andy always looked a little nervous when Tina talked about changing melodies or notes in her music. Classical music was more Andy’s style, and Tina appreciated her ability to pull nuance and meaning out of the notes
exactly
as they were written. But the old fiddle tunes Tina loved best had been passed down by ear from generation to generation, changing with each person who played them, belonging to no one and everyone at once. She was free to alter them to fit her style and her mood, but she never felt more connected to her family than she did when she played an old Irish jig or reel. Connected to her mother’s side of the family, of course. She’d rather forget any ties she had to the other side.

“Are you dancing?”

Tina jumped in surprise. She’d been so caught up in her song she hadn’t noticed Peter approaching the table, and she hadn’t realized she was noticeably moving to her own beat. He seemed seriously concerned for her sanity, and she was tempted to play along. Dancing by herself in the middle of a bar ought to confirm the rumor that she was the off-kilter black sheep of the family.

“Oh, sit down. I’m not going to embarrass you,” she said in exasperation. “I spent the day practicing on my violin, and the song is stuck in my head.”

Peter sat across from her. He looked at home in the bar, with his navy suit and open-collared pale blue shirt. She was about to tease him for dressing too formally for a simple drink with friends, but she didn’t look any more casual. She had justified the effort of getting her black wool-blend slacks and red silk tank dry-cleaned and pressed this afternoon because she had been so scruffy the day before. Peter was putting the reputation of his business in her hands, and she wanted him to see that she cleaned up just fine. And, she had to admit, she liked the thought of looking her best when Jan saw her. She never put much effort into dressing for other women. She just showed up as herself, and no one had ever seemed disappointed. She wondered, briefly, why meeting Jan seemed different, but she didn’t want to examine the question too deeply.

“Glad to hear it. You seemed a bit…tense yesterday.”

“It was a long fucking drive,” Tina said, doing her best to warn him off the topic with her tone.

Peter just laughed. “Yeah, with Gran at the end of it.” He quickly changed the subject. “I should have known you’d be musical. Our whole family is.”

“My grandpa on Mom’s side was a fiddle player and music professor. That’s where I get it,” Tina said stiffly.

“I know. Your dad studied with him at WSU, where he met Aunt Kathleen. I mean, your mom. But we all play something. Piano for Dad and Gran, clarinet for Mom, oboe for my sister.”

Tina had a flash of recognition while he spoke. Christmas. She must have been four or five. She could picture Uncle Nick at the piano, with everyone gathered around him singing and laughing. She shrugged it off. One happy memory did not a family make.

“So what about you?” she asked, twirling her drink so the melting ice chinked against the glass. “What’s your musical poison?”

“Um, I played french horn in high school and college. I haven’t kept up with it, though.”

Tina leaned her elbows on the table. He was a stranger to her, yet his mannerisms and expressions were too familiar. Too like her own. “You hesitated. Do you play something else, something I’ll think is funny? Panpipes? Bass guitar in a heavy-metal band? Are you a one-man band with a little monkey?”

“Mandolin,” Peter admitted. “I’m in a period group, and we play all the local Renaissance fairs, Shakespeare in the Park, that sort of thing. And I’m so glad I could amuse you.”

Tina wiped her eyes and tried to control her laughter. The idea of prim and proper Peter strolling around in leggings and a feathered cap was too funny. “Even better than I imagined,” she said.

“Mock all you want, we have a great time. You should join us sometime this summer. We can always use another fiddle. And a few of us play at a pub called O’Boyle’s every Tuesday night if you want to come meet the gang.”

Tina’s laughter faded a bit. O’Boyle’s was the pub she had noticed on her way to the nursery. So much for the hope she had found a private place to enjoy music and maybe some female companionship. Neither would be as much fun with her cousin hovering nearby.

“Hey, is that your friend?”

Tina had been distracted by her conversation with Peter, and she had forgotten about Jan. She turned in her chair and saw two women in the doorway. Jan. She hadn’t changed much in two years. Her hair was longer, curling slightly and hanging just past her shoulders, and she was wearing dark jeans and a white shirt, sheer enough to barely show the outline of her bra, instead of the silk outfit she had worn to Brooke’s rehearsal. But, otherwise, she looked the same. The gold tones in her dark blond hair made the gilded fixtures appear even shabbier by comparison, and her intense eyes—the same deep, washed blue as her jeans—seemed to be analyzing and measuring everything they saw.

“Yep,” Tina said as she waved at Jan. She fought hard to keep from looking anywhere below Jan’s chin.

“Wow. She is absolutely gorgeous.”

The wistful note in Peter’s voice was enough to make Tina turn away from the sight of Jan walking toward their table.

“Yes, she is. And she’s gay. I thought I made that clear.”

“The brunette? I mean, I know your friend is gay, but isn’t she the blonde?”

Tina turned again to the two women as they neared the table. Sure enough, the other woman was a brunette. Tina hadn’t noticed.

Jan watched the exchange between Tina and her cousin as she led Chloe to the table in the back of the bar. Tina was frowning, and Jan wondered if she was about to interrupt an argument. Brooke had mentioned Tina’s estrangement from her family, so she had been surprised to hear a cousin would be joining them. It didn’t look like a happy family reunion. Great. An unwanted invitation to drinks and a family argument as a bonus. At least the cousin didn’t look as angry as Tina did. In fact, he looked mesmerized as he stared past Jan as if she didn’t exist. Straight at Chloe.

No one seemed inclined to speak first, so Jan decided to start. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Tina,” she said, reaching out her hand. Tina hesitated before she shook it. The first touch. Jan had imagined how Tina’s hands would feel way too many times over the past two years. A firm grip with soft hands, long and slender fingers wrapped around her own. The warmth of reality felt much better than anything her imagination had created. She pulled back a little too quickly. Barely enough of a handshake to be polite, let alone to be affected by Tina’s touch. “This is my friend Chloe.”

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