Once More From the Top (The Women of Willow Bay)

BOOK: Once More From the Top (The Women of Willow Bay)
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Once More From The Top

by

Nan Reinhardt

 

Copyright © Nan Reinhardt 2013

All Rights Reserved

 

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the copyright owner except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, events, business establishments or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

First Digital Edition: September 2013

 

www.NanReinhardt.com

 

 

 

For
my Dee—Thanks for always believing in me. We’ve had a wondrous thirty years, my friend. Here’s to many more!

 

 

 

O
NE

 

 

Carrie Halligan’s fingers tickled the keys of the ebony grand piano, finding the notes almost without conscious volition. She’d played “Misty” so many times in this bar, she didn’t even have to think about the music. Instead, she focused on the low rocks glass just to her right. One last slip of paper, only one more request, and her shift was over.

The click of silverware against plates, the chink of glasses being bussed, and the murmur of a dozen conversations overwhelmed her music. Didn’t matter. Carrie wasn’t there to be the center of attention. Her job was to provide the background and that suited her just fine. A smattering of applause broke out as she played the final notes and tossed a smile over her bare shoulder. If it weren’t for the can lights shining down on the piano, she’d have been freezing in the strapless black dress.

She pulled out the last slip of paper and unfolded it; Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” She recognized the spiky handwriting—the Dugans were in the audience. The couple came in every other Saturday and stayed for hours listening to her play. Sometimes they danced, snuggled close in each other’s arms. Their obvious infatuation warmed Carrie’s heart. That kind of devotion was rare these days.

“This one’s for Suz from Peter,” she announced and began the haunting ballad amid a collective sigh from the crowd.

“Thanks, Carrie,” a deep voice called and she smiled as she played on.

Tired and ready to go home, she frowned when Rudy, the bartender, appeared over her shoulder and dropped another slip of paper into the glass. Holding up one finger, he backed off the tiny stage, mouthing, “One more?” With a nod and a wink, she played the last notes of the old ballad.

It happened sometimes. A late-night request, usually from a sad barfly dredging up old memories or some couple who wanted one last dance.

She rolled her neck and stretched her fingers before reaching into the glass. When she opened the slip and peered at it under the soft glow of the piano light, her breath caught.

Haydn’s Concerto in C Major.

Her pulse pounded in her ears, shutting out the chatter in the bar as she gazed uncomprehending at the paper. She squinted, blinking at the square black letters unable to make sense of what was written there.

Dear God in heaven. Who requested
this?

Her fingers shook and the words on the paper blurred. Only one person would ask her to play that particular piece, and there was no way on earth
he
was in this bar. She tensed, afraid to even turn around. Closing her eyes, she released a long, shuddering breath before glancing as casually as she could at the crowd.

Is he here? Is it possible?

Heat rose into her cheeks and perspiration dampened the back of her neck as she scanned the room. The lighting was so dim she could barely make out individual faces in the crowd. People were already beginning to stand up to leave, assuming, no doubt, that she’d finished playing for the night. Carrie didn’t see him, but would she even recognize him? It had been so long—a lifetime ago.

“I–I’m sorry.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I don’t know this one.”

“You knew it once. Play it.”

An icy chill settled in the pit of her stomach as she recognized the voice coming from across the bar. Her head whipped around and she peered into the shadows. A tall figure stood silhouetted in the entrance.

She didn’t need to see his face. Even in the dark, his towering height and that unmistakable halo of dark red hair identified him.

Maestro Liam Reilly.

He stepped into the light and their eyes met. His mouth curved into a hint of a smile that sent a spasm of longing through her. The cacophony in the bar dwindled to distant background noise as she gazed dumbfounded across the room. It
was
him. Silver threads shone among the thick hair that swept back off his forehead, except for that one stray strand that still fell to his brow.

He’s older.

The inanity of that thought occurred to the logical part of her stunned mind even as she tried to comprehend that he was standing less than thirty feet away.

Of course he’s older. It’s been sixteen years.

Helpless to do anything but gape, she closed her fingers around the scrap of paper, crumpling it into a tiny ball. Her stomach churned, and although the urge to flee was overwhelming, she knew her trembling legs would never hold her up long enough to escape. Not without tripping over the piano stool and falling flat on her face.

What is he doing here?

Heart pounding a rough rhythm, Carrie sat perfectly still for a moment, caught in his mesmerizing gaze. His smile broadened and that dimple, oh God, that killer dimple, creased his cheek as he gave her the barest nod.

A challenge.

At last she managed to pull her eyes from his and swallow the panic that rose in her throat. She could do this. She was a pro. Didn’t matter who walked in off the street. Hell yes, she could do this and without freaking out.

Hands trembling, she dropped the bit of paper, squared her shoulders, and began to play—tentatively, then more confidently as her fingers remembered the notes. First the
Vivace,
and suddenly his brawny frame, arms raised as he conducted, flashed through her mind. Her first glimpse of him standing tall on the podium in that little auditorium at McGill University. He took a group of musicians through a Rachmaninoff chamber piece while she watched, spellbound.

She banished the memory and focused on the
Adagio

Un Poco Adagio
—but there was their first kiss, gentle, just the touch of his mouth before turning deliciously erotic. They’d stood beneath a streetlight on the campus in Montreal, so wrapped up in each other they didn’t even feel the raindrops. Her memory conjured up such a clear picture that her lips burned and tingled as she bent over the keyboard.

No!

Biting her lower lip, she leaned in, and the music poured from her fingers. Finally, she got to the
Rondo
, the
Allegro
. Memories of his bare chest, heaving as he rose over her, crept into her head, nearly causing her to lose focus. His whispered words, the fierce kisses… but she played on, shaking that scene from her mind as sweat prickled her ribs and plastered the curls to the curve of her cheek. By the time she was done and the piece flawlessly played, her carefully managed control snapped.

A moment of silence reigned before the burst of applause and whistles from the few remaining patrons. Panting and breathless, she searched the handful of people left in the bar.

He was gone.

She stood, craning her neck to see over the shadowed heads of the patrons as fear gripped her. The piano bench scraped when she shoved it back and raced off the stage and out the door. Wringing her hands, she peered around the hotel lobby, past the front desk and then to the bank of elevators, watching for his tall frame, his broad back. She didn’t see him anywhere.

But he
was
here. Liam was here… in Michigan.

 

* * * *

 

Five minutes later, she careened out of the parking lot, blinking back hot, stinging tears. Gulping them away, she wrapped her damp hands around the steering wheel, trying desperately to concentrate on the road as she sped toward Willow Bay and home. Straightening in the seat, she drove with grim determination. Once she reached home, she could breathe again.

Lights shone in her apartment above the old boathouse at Dixon’s Marina. It was only a little after eleven, so of course Jack was still awake, probably playing games on his laptop. She raced up the steps as fast as her high-heeled sandals allowed and threw open the door. Following the sounds of pinging and electronic explosions to his room, she tapped on the door jamb.

“Hey. Get packed. I’m taking you up to camp tomorrow morning.” She slipped out of the shoes and pressed her ankle where the strap had rubbed a raw spot.

Jack glanced up. “Why? You said I couldn’t go ’til Monday.”

“I changed my mind.”

“Why?” He’d mastered the fifteen-year-old’s exasperated eye roll, but she ignored it this time and tossed her shoes on the loft step.

“What does it matter? You’re the one who wanted to go a day early. I’m taking you up a day early.” Hurrying into his room, she yanked a big canvas duffle from the top of his closet. “Here. Start packing. Did you get your laundry done?”

“The last of it’s in the dryer.” Jack closed the laptop and set it next to him on the messy bed. “Mom. What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” Struggling to keep her voice calm, she was determined not to let him see her panic. “I just got to thinking there’s no reason to make you wait when all the other counselors are going to be there tomorrow. Isn’t that what you told me?”

“Well, not
all
of them, just some. Max and Sean and… Mom, stop.” He stood up and took a pile of socks and underwear from her hands. “Come on, what’s up?”

“I can’t win, can I?” She forced a grin. “First you’re ticked because I wanted to keep you with me an extra day before you leave for the whole summer. Now you’re balking when I agree to take you up a day early.”

“I’m not balking.” Jack stuffed the clothing in the duffle. “Just curious why you changed your mind.”

“Ever hear the old saying,
‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’?” She patted his cheek as he nodded, still eyeing her with suspicion. “Well, don’t. Get packed. We’re outta here at nine in the morning.”

Running up the stairs, she stopped dead in the center of her own bedroom as cold fear overtook her. She dropped down on the end of the bed and buried her face in her hands, then bent over, fighting nausea, trying to keep from flying into a million pieces. When she could breathe again, she yanked off the dress and slipped into yoga pants and an old t-shirt. In the bathroom, she smeared cold cream on her face, wiping off the smoky shadow and black mascara as her thoughts tumbled and turned.

What in holy hell is he doing here?

What does he want?

What does he know?

Carrie’s heart plummeted as she stared at her stricken visage in the mirror. Eliot brought him here—that was the only explanation that made any sense at all. The nausea subsided as anger began to simmer in its place. Yes, this thing reeked of Eliot Raines’s fine hand. For years, he’d been more than a godfather and old family friend. He’d been the one person she could count on to support her. Confidant. Surrogate father
to her, and grandfather to Jack. And the one person in the world who knew her deepest secrets.

Why on earth had he betrayed her now?

She grabbed her phone.

“Damn you, Eliot,” Carrie said through gritted teeth when he answered. “He’s here. How in the hell could you do this to me?”

“I can see that talking to you tonight is going to be quite pointless.” Eliot showed no surprise that she’d called him so late. “Go to bed. We’ll have coffee and talk in the morning.”

“No. We’ll talk
now.
” Panic made her throat tight. “Why is he here?”

“I needed a big name.” When she didn’t respond, he continued. “You know I’m chair of the Lawson fundraiser. I needed someone who could draw a crowd full of deep pockets.”

“You
promised
,” Carrie choked out the words in a whisper. “You promised me you wouldn’t tell him.”

“I haven’t told him a thing.”

“Not yet you haven’t. Don’t, Eliot. Please.” Carrie begged and then hated herself for it.

Eliot sighed. “I told you. He can draw the kind of crowd I need for Lawson. This isn’t about you. That camp needs money…
money for kids like your son, and I won’t let it go under because you can’t face your past.”

Carrie opened her mouth to object
, but snapped it shut as she caught sight of Jack sprinting up the stairs. “Don’t think we’re done, Eliot. We’re not.” She ended the call just as Jack appeared in the doorway, his red hair gleaming in the light from the ceiling fan above the bed. “Hey, babe, what’s up?”

“I’m packed.” He flopped
onto the bed and stared at the fan circling lazily above his head. “Who was that?”

“Just Eliot asking if we wanted muffins
for breakfast. He’s been baking again.” Carrie smiled, surprised at how easily the lie slipped from her lips.

“Yeah? What kind?”

“Dunno. I told him we were on our way to Lawson tomorrow morning.” She groaned as she pulled him up to a sitting position. “Time for bed, dude. We’ve got an early day tomorrow.”

“You sure about this?” Jack rose and headed for the door. “I can wait till Monday.”

“Nah, it’s alright. I’ll be fine, and you’re gonna have a great time.” She gave him a quick hug before he loped downstairs. When his door closed, she released a shaken breath, and curled up on the bed, wrapping her trembling body in the old quilt.

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