Authors: Tara Crescent
By Tara Crescent
Text copyright © 2014 Tara Crescent
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
My eternal gratitude to Jim, who pre-read and edited this story.
Cover Design by James, GoOnWrite.com.
Friday, March 1
I know I’ve screwed up the instant I finish the piece. No, before that. I know the instant I start playing the
in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s a soft, emotional little melody, and as I hear the notes in the air, I can tell something is off.
The emotion is missing, as it has been since my mother died. And though this audition is my last-ditch effort to fix the mess that I’ve made of my life since that day, it seems like I’ve failed again.
There are four people listening to me play. The Chair of the Piano department at Juilliard, and three members of the faculty. Three men, and one woman who had smiled at me encouragingly when I started. She’s not smiling now; she’s saying something in a low voice to the other three. I can see her hands wave expressively as she speaks. One of the men turns to look at me doubtfully, but she nods vigorously and keeps talking.
Finally, the Chair nods.
“Alison Greenwall,” he says. His eyes meet mine. “I’m going to be honest – your work isn’t to the standard we expect at Juilliard.”
Yes, I know that. Until I had started preparing last month for this audition, I hadn’t touched the piano in six years. I’m horribly rusty, but it is more than that. There’s a block in me, and the pressure is building up behind it, but I can’t let go and release the emotion safely.
“But your mother was part of the faculty here, and Mara,” he glances over to the woman in the brightly patterned dress and the dangly earrings, “thinks you have potential.” His expression makes no secret of the fact that he’s not as convinced as Mara is about my talent.
“It is March 1. We are going to make an exception for you, and schedule another audition next week. March 6. I suggest you practise hard for your second chance.”
I thank them quietly, and I leave the room.
Five days. What the fuck is the point? Maybe if I had longer to prepare, I could try to sort out why my playing feels wooden and lifeless. I have technical merit, true. I’ve been playing the piano since I was four, and when I was eighteen, thoughts of getting into Juilliard were all that occupied my time. But my heart has never completely recovered from my mother’s death, and one week isn’t sufficient time to try to coax it from hiding.
I am about to give in to despair and tears, when a stray thought strikes me.
‘Nikolai could help.’
I swiftly banish that thought. I want nothing to do with Nikolai Zhdanov. But the thought doesn’t retreat, and as I sit in the Starbucks around the corner from Juilliard, it gains in strength. If anyone can fix what is wrong, it’s Nikolai, and he owes me. He bears a share of responsibility for the mess my life is in now. He can help me pull myself out.
I act on impulse. I have only my wallet with me, but I head towards Chinatown, where I can catch a cheap shuttle bus to Boston.
Nikolai lives in Boston. I haven’t seen him in six years; the last time I saw him was at my mother’s funeral. He’d looked anguished and bleak that day. His hands had still been in bandages, his career as a classical pianist ruined as a result of the damage sustained in the car crash and the subsequent fire. But I was hurting from the death of the only parent I had ever known, and I didn’t care about his loss, just mine.
The bus will take four hours to reach my destination. I have four hours to figure out how to convince him to tutor me so I will pass the audition.
I knock on the red door of the Cambridge townhouse and wait.
I wait some more. I knock again. Finally, after almost five minutes, the door opens, and Nikolai Zhdanov stands in the doorway. One dark eyebrow has risen upon seeing me, but he surveys me in silence.
, Nikolai,” I say quietly.
Finally, he speaks. “Allie,” he says, his voice rich with distaste. “The Juilliard audition didn’t go great, I take it?”
I take a deep breath. I don’t bother asking how he knows – he is probably on first name basis with every single one of the faculty at Juilliard. I don’t bother admiring his flawless, unaccented English. I just put my cards on the table.
“No,” I reply. “I need your help.”
He moves aside, and I take a step inside his house. My heart is beating and my palms are damp. Seeing Nikolai Zhdanov again is making me very, very nervous.
“Tell me why I should help you, Allie.”
The question hangs in the air, and I consider my response.
Nikolai and I have so much history. He was my mother’s most cherished protégé. When she heard him play the piano in a small orchestra in the mostly forgotten city of Norilsk in the far northern reaches of Russia, she’d moved heaven and earth to get him a visa to America. For the first three months, until she persuaded the New York Philharmonic to give him an audition, he had lived in our apartment. I’d given up my bedroom and moved into my mother’s room so that Nikolai could have some privacy.
I remember how outraged I’d been at that. I remember how attracted I’d been to the brooding man who hadn’t spoken a word of English when he landed.
I remember the tears rolling down my cheeks when I first heard him play, understanding why my mother had done what she’d done. Because when Nikolai Zhdanov plays the piano, angels stop and listen.
“You owe me,” I say boldly. A complete lie; he owes me nothing. I’m unscrupulous though. If he feels guilt at my mother’s death, I’m not above using it to rescue myself.
I need so desperately to claw out of the dark pit that my life has become.
He holds up his hands. I see the faded scars on them, the uneven skin that plastic surgery has not managed to smooth over. “I owe you nothing, Allie,” he says flatly. “Your mother was driving. When we rolled over, I tried my best to save her. My conscience is clean. I did everything I could.”
He doesn’t speak the next sentence. Had he walked away without trying to pull my mother out, his hands would have never been damaged. He had been the principal pianist at the New York Philharmonic. His career would have been written in stars. His attempt to save my mother had ended that dream.
“Please,” I say softly. “She saved you in Norilsk.”
“I would have done anything for your mother,” he clarifies. “You, on the other hand, are spoiled and self-indulgent and seem to be insistent on flushing your life down the toilet. I have no use for such destruction.”
His words wound me deeply and anger me just as much. “Did you not grieve your lost career, Nikolai? Did you not feel despair? I lost my only parent. Forgive me if I can’t be as stoic as you.”
“And this is how you honour your mother’s memory?” he sneers. There’s no kindness in his eyes. “Drugs? Alcohol? The losers you call friends?”
Again, I don’t ask how he knows about my life. But the damning facts are accurate enough.
“In January,” I say softly, “I hosted a New Year’s Eve party.” I remember that debauched spectacle, a hundred drunk people crammed into the apartment that my mother had left me in her will. “Some kids were banging out tunes on the piano.” I had felt a profound wrongness as a complete stranger sat at the piano that my mother had played on every day for as long as I remembered. “I pushed him out of the way and I played for the first time in six years.”
“What did you play?” he asks. For the first time since I’ve walked in, there’s a bit of a thaw.
“Ginastera,” I say. “The Danzas Argentinas.”
“Which piece?” he probes. Of course he knows Ginastera, and he knows the work intimately enough to ask the follow-up question. He was the principal pianist of the New York Philharmonic, after all.
Danza del gaucho matrero,
” he comments. He smiles for the first time. “I wouldn’t have thought of you as an arrogant cowboy. An ambitious choice.” His eyes run up and down my body.
“Please, Nikolai,” I plead. He has to help me. I need Juilliard; I need the structure of the hours of class and the endless practice to rescue myself from the void my life has become.
“You beg so well, Allie.” His eyes darken before they once again become emotionless. “I don’t take on students.”
I see the way his eyes rest on my cleavage, and I’m not afraid to use my body. “I’ll do anything,” I say. My voice takes on a suggestive tone, and my finger trails down the vee of the t-shirt I’m wearing.
He raises another dark eyebrow. “Come with me,” he says.
I follow him down a flight of stairs, and when we get to the bottom, he flicks the light on. My breath catches at the sight in front of me.
Nikolai’s basement is a dungeon. On the walls, I see whips and rope and paddles and canes and belts of leather. From the ceiling, metal chains dangle. Iron rings are embedded in the concrete floor. There’s a large metal cage in a corner. A massive wooden cross on one side. And, under a spotlight in the center of the room, the most incongruous sight of all. A piano.
“I’m not nice, Allie,” he says. “I’m not kind. This will be the hardest week of your life. I will hurt you. I will make you cry. I will make you beg me for mercy, and I will offer you none.”
“Will you make me pass my audition?” I ask.
He gestures to the piano. “Play the Ginastera piece,” he orders. “Let’s see what I have to work with.”
My hands are shaking as I walk to the piano. I haven’t eaten since the morning. I’m starving and my emotions are a confused jumble. But I make no excuses. Nine years ago, Nikolai Zhdanov moved from Norilsk to New York, where he didn’t know a single person apart from my mother. In three months, he learned to speak English and was hired by the New York Philharmonic. Two years later, he was appointed the principal pianist at the orchestra. I’ve heard him practise for hours upon end, focused completely on the goal in front of him.
Nikolai Zhdanov does not accept excuses.
The third piece of the Danzas Argentinas is a short bit of music, slightly over three minutes long. It’s a favourite of mine; one I can play from memory. The piece starts off as dissonant noise, and the pace is fast and furious. It takes skill to pull melody from the composition.
I play it for him. When I’m done, the silence grows. I break it first, nervously. “How bad is it?” I think I’ve been okay. Not great, but a solid B+.
“Move,” he orders, and I get up from the piano stool. His fingers caress the keys, and then he plays the same piece. Also from memory.
A competent pianist can play Ginastera and can draw out the melody from underneath the dissonance. But playing in front of me isn’t a competent pianist. Nikolai Zhdanov is a genius, and I hear the piece played as I’ve never heard it before.
“You can still play?” I ask finally, when he’s done. It’s takes effort to speak, to swallow past the lump in my throat.
“In a fashion,” he replies. “My fingers don’t have the strength to play professionally. I cannot be a concert pianist anymore. But music doesn’t live in your fingers, Allie. Music lives in your heart.”
I have nothing to say to that. My heart stopped the day the police knocked on my door and told me there had been an accident and that my mother was dead.
“If you are willing to endure,” he says finally, his voice dark as sin, “then yes. You will pass the audition.”
I push the words out past the trepidation. “Anything.”
Though I don’t dare hope for one, I get a brief respite. “You caught the Chinatown shuttle?” he asks.
I nod. Most everyone my age that commutes between New York and Boston use the cheap shuttles that connect the two cities’ Chinatowns.
“The shuttles don’t stop for food, do they? Have you eaten?”
I shake my head and he surveys me. “No food,” he notes. “No luggage, no clothes. What were you thinking?”
“That you’d throw me out and I’d head back to New York tonight,” I retort.
He laughs, a dark sound that dances along my body. “By the end of the week, you might regret not picking that option.” He glances at his watch. “Let’s go out,” he suggests. “Come.”
We walk to a bar around the corner from his home. It’s dark outside and freezing, and I shiver in my coat. “No hat, no scarf,” he remarks disapprovingly. “Since when did you get this self-destructive, Allie?”
He doesn’t wait for me to answer and I don’t bother responding. We both know what my reply would be. Since the day my mother died, I’d drifted, anchorless and uncaring. Until the start of this year, when I’d played Ginastera just after midnight, and I swore to myself that day that no matter what the temptation, this year would be the year I pull myself out.
At the bar, he orders for the both of us, and I raise my eyebrow. “Setting the pattern for the week?” I ask, taking a sip of the beer that’s been placed in front of me.
“Get used to it,” is all that he says.
“How will this work?” I ask once we are done with our burgers. “This week?” I can’t hide that I’m nervous.
“You do everything I tell you,” he replies. His eyes are hard and uncompromising. “If you don’t obey, you can leave.”
“No safe words then?” I ask, biting my lip. I have no doubt there’s going to be a sexual component to this.
“Safe words?” He looks amused. “Do you think this is some, sweet, soft, kinky session, Allie? This week, you are mine to use any way I see fit.”
“And I’ll get into Juilliard.”
He nods. He takes a sip. “You can tell me if you are afraid,” he says. “I’m not going to rape you. Think of this as a barter. You give me something, you get something. ”
“Can I take anything off the table?” Though this isn’t a negotiation, I’m still trying to negotiate. But I haven’t seen Nikolai in six years. In those six years, I’ve fallen, hard and low. Drugs and alcohol, strange men in strange bars, risky unprotected sex. I’ve chased self-destruction, and I’m lucky I’m relatively intact. I have no idea what his journey has been or how dark he’s become.
“What do you want to take off the table?”
I gulp. If he’s even considering negotiating, then I want to choose my next words carefully. If I set too many limits, he’ll walk and I can kiss my audition goodbye.
“Nothing permanent,” I say finally. “Tattoos, brands, piercings.”
He grins, and for a brief second, I see the Nikolai I once knew, the man who looked like a Slavic god, and played like an angel. “Ah, Allie,” he shakes his head, his eyes hard again. “What a foolish thing to negotiate for.” He inclines his head. “Okay. Nothing permanent.”
“I’ll need clothes,” I think out aloud. “And I should probably try to find a hotel room.”
“No,” he says. “You’ll be naked. And you’ll sleep in the dungeon.”
And just like that, the respite is over.
Back at his apartment, he opens his refrigerator and grabs another bottle of beer. Then, he gestures for me to head downstairs.
I’m nervous now. I have no illusions about what’s going to happen. I’ve seen the wall filled with canes and belts. Nikolai is going to hurt me. He’s going to tie me up and whip me, and I am going to endure. Because he will quite literally whip me into shape for the audition.
Yet I’m startled to realize that I trust him to keep his end of the bargain. If I do what I’m told, if I hang in there, on March 6, just five scant days from now, I will ace my audition.
“Undress.” The words are bald of any sentiment.
He moves and takes a seat opposite the piano, and gestures me to a spot in the light. He’s half in shadow where he’s sitting. I can’t see his face. All I can see is that his arms are folded and he’s waiting.
Fuck. I can’t keep him waiting.
I’ve taken off my coat upstairs already. Trembling, I take off my sweater. “Umm,” I ask, blinking at Nikolai’s dark silhouette. “Should I be doing a strip tease?”
“Did I ask for a strip tease?”
“No,” I reply, feeling foolish.
“If your clothes aren’t off in thirty seconds,” his voice says, “you can leave.”
Those words spur me to speed. I unbutton my white button-down shirt and shrug it off my shoulders. My bra sails to a corner. My skirt and my panties are slid down together, and I step out of them. I’ve definitely taken less than thirty seconds.
“At what point this morning did you realize you failed?” His question whips out of the darkness. I’m in the spotlight. I feel very naked, and very exposed.
“When I played the
in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 3.”
“Let’s start there then,” he replies. He gestures to the piano.
I take a seat at the stool. My entire body is flaming with heat and embarrassment. I close my eyes, to try it shut it all out, and I play the concerto. When I finish, I look to the corner he’s seated at.
“Lacking emotion,” he says. He gets up and comes forward, and he has an old-fashioned wooden ruler in his hands. “Hold out your hands to me, palms up,” he orders.
Trembling, I follow his directions.
“Part your legs.”
My foot slides off the foot pedal, and I spread my legs wide, putting my cunt on display for him under the spotlight.
“Count the strokes. Thank me for instructing you.”
“Should I call you Sir?” My voice is very soft.
He laughs, a mocking sound in the darkness. “You can call me whatever you like, Allie,” he says. “As long as you keep your hands extended.”
Though he moves forward into the light, I don’t watch his face. I watch the ruler instead, the way it swings in the air as it comes hurtling towards my palm.
I bite my lip as pain explodes in sharp bursts all over my skin, but, through a force of will, I keep my hands where they are. “One,” I whisper, hating the tremble in my voice. “Thank you, Nikolai.”
“I don’t think I need to point out that if you pull your hands away,” Nikolai’s voice is very even, “you risk damaging your fingers.”
No, he doesn’t need to point that out, though that wasn’t the reason I kept my hands where they were. I stayed still because that was what I’d been ordered to do, and though I am a fool in many ways, I know instinctively that Nikolai needs to be obeyed.
The ruler cracks down on my palm again, and tears rise in my eyes. “Two.” I gulp. “Thank you, Nikolai.”
Again and again, the ruler rains blows on my poor, swollen palms. I whimper and flinch and cry out. I don’t meet Nikolai’s eyes as he punishes me; I screw my eyes shut so I don’t have to watch. But I don’t move my hands. “Twenty,” I count finally, and he stops.
I blink the tears back, and his eyes drop to my cunt. “Wet,” he notes dispassionately. “Turned on by pain, Allie?”
I lift my chin up at him defiantly. “So it seems.” I refuse to be embarrassed by the way my body has reacted to his punishment.
again,” he orders.
This time, I’m achingly conscious of the red, throbbing feeling in my punished palms. I try to push it to the back of my mind and focus on the music, but I can’t. The pain is too
Nikolai has moved, and is standing behind me. I can feel the displeasure radiating off him, and I tense. The second punishment will not be as mild as a ruler on my palms. Nikolai has always been ruthless in the pursuit of his goals.
So I do the only thing possible. I don’t try to push away the pain and bury it, because I can’t. I open myself up and I invite it in. The second minute of the
, I’m open in a way that I haven’t allowed myself to be in six years. The music flows, and I don’t try to control it. I just shape it with my fingers, and let it spill through.
At the end, I close my eyes. I feel drained. I also know I’ve played the Andante in a way I’ve never played it before.
“Better,” he notes. “But you still have progress to make.”
. I hug the word of praise to myself, knowing that praise from Nikolai is a rare thing and is to be cherished. If this is the result, then I’m ready to face anything that Nikolai Zhdanov has in store for me this week.
It is after midnight when he finally stands up. I’ve played my entire audition program twice, and he’s stood behind me and watched. As I play, I’m achingly conscious of him, of his beautiful, scarred hands and his strong body, and of the fire that hides underneath his carefully blank expression.
“We have an intense few days ahead,” is all he says. “Get some sleep.”
“Where?” I ask.
He points to the cage, and I notice there’s some kind of lumpy bedding there.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I state flatly. It doesn’t come out as a question.
He sounds indifferent as he answers. “You can sleep in the cage with the bedding, or on the floor without.” He points to the ceiling, where I note several blinking security cameras that I hadn’t seen earlier. “You cannot pull the bedding out of the cage.”
“You get your jollies spying on women?” There’s judgement in my voice, though I try to keep my tone expressionless. Although it’s been six years since I’ve seen him, I did know Nikolai fairly well when I was younger. This just doesn’t seem much like him.
He laughs, an easy, relaxed sound. “No, but when I leave women restrained in here,” he points to the Saint Andrews Cross and the cage, “it’s for their safety that I watch.”
“Are you going to lock me into the cage?” I sound nervous.
This time, when he laughs, it isn’t easy or relaxed. It is a dark threat and I shiver as I hear it. “I don’t hold the key to your cage, Allie,” he says. “You do.”
We eye each other for the longest time. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. My thoughts are a turmoil; the stress of the failed audition, the bus ride to Boston, the events of the day, all of it has taken a toll. I’m exhausted.
I crawl into the cage and curl up. I want to think about what tomorrow has to bring, I want to worry and fret about the Juilliard audition, and I want to delve into why I’m still attracted to Nikolai.
I’m too tired to do any of this. I fall asleep.