Marie let out an even breath with her eyes closed. Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out . . .
"Are you ready?"
She opened her eyes and looked at her sister. Giselle’s eyes were bright with excitement. It was finally here, the night they had worked so hard for the past few weeks. Ever since Prof. Tech was out of the picture, Marie felt lighter, better. And arguing with her sister and cousin over music turned out to be the bonding she needed most at that moment. Rehearsals helped to push Derek to the back of her mind for a while. It was a necessary distraction. She had been out in more hours than she usually did with her Professor, but it didn’t seem like a punishment this time. One night she and Giselle had even worked until two in the morning and ended up so tired that they found themselves laughing at the simplest things, both of them goofing off until their father woke up and decided to offer them some advice after he had heard them play the piece they composed. Their parents handled their decision to do their own piece better than Marie expected. They were upset at first, but when they realized how determined Giselle was, they accepted it.
Marie found herself growing closer and closer to her sister everyday. After Giselle had stood up for her with Prof. Tech, Marie had never felt a greater desire to be like that. She wanted to be confident, assertive, and honest like her sister. Giselle was never afraid of letting someone know how she felt, and she went about it in a way that Marie admired. Marie closed up whenever her feelings became something someone would oppose. She had been trying to break that, little by little. Giselle was excellent practice, just a week ago when they were having a late night talk, Marie felt comfortable enough to confess about how she had fallen for Derek. She purposely kept the L-word out of the conversation. There were some things she would still rather keep to herself. Maybe one day she’d tell Giselle. One thing was for sure though, it felt better, being able to speak about it, it made it easier to deal with knowing Giselle was always willing to listen. Soon, she might just be able to admit something bigger.
"I don’t think I’ll ever be," Marie said and played with her fingers nervously. They stood backstage behind the heavy curtain and Marie could hear the theater hall filling up with excited audience members. Giselle laughed. "Oh, come on, it’s going to be great!" She said and turned when Jonah joined them. He smiled at both of them, looking dapper in his black suit pants, white button up shirt, black bow tie and suspenders. His tall, lean form was complemented by his outfit. His dark brown hair was gelled back and his brown eyes were smiling with confidence.
Marie raised an eyebrow. Even the kid was more relaxed than she was.
"Someone cleans up nice," Giselle said and placed an elbow on his shoulder. Jonah smirked. "We all do," he said and dug into his pocket for his phone. Both the Balaco sisters were in little black dresses. Giselle’s was a simple v-neck with spaghetti straps while Marie’s was an equally simple dress with a heart neckline and loose off shouldered sleeves. Giselle’s hair was up in a bun that the stylist described as "messy" and "lazy" although it took him forty-five minutes before he was satisfied with it. Marie’s hair was down in curls over her shoulders. "We need a photo," Jonah said and lifted his phone with one hand while putting his free arm around Giselle’s shoulder. Marie laughed and stood ducked under his other arm to get in the shot. She lifted her eyes to the camera and smiled as Jonah took the picture. A few more and Jonah lowered his arm.
"I think this might be one of the greatest Balaco performances yet," he said when he looked at his cousins. "As long as we pull it off," Marie said, forcing a smile. Jonah looked at Giselle. "Is she still paranoid?" He asked. Giselle rolled her eyes. "Is the guitar a string instrument?"
Jonah smirked. "I’m gonna go grab some of those mini pizzas," he said. "I’ll join you. Marie, would you like anything?" Giselle asked. Marie shook her head. "I’ll be here collecting myself," she said.
As soon as they rounded a corner, Marie walked towards the side of the stage to where two of the heavy red curtains that shielded them from the audience met. She placed her fingers in the space between the curtains and opened it the tiniest bit to have a better view of the crowd. Only a few seats were still empty, another reminder of how close they were to performing. She slowly scanned the crowd, wondering if he would come. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed Mrs. West sitting next to her son in the fifth row. Cleo sat next to Mr. West in a pale yellow dress, smiling as she chatted with the two adults. The seat next to her was occupied by Josh Anderson and the teen brunette sitting next to him was probably his daughter. Marie felt like a stone was slowly sinking in her stomach. He probably wasn’t coming. He would be with his grandmother if he was.
"He’ll be here."
She jumped and turned sharply towards her sister. Giselle smiled encouragingly. Marie felt blood rush to her cheeks.
"I wasn’t . . . that is . . ." She pulled up her shoulders. "I’m just being stupid."
Giselle let out a quiet laugh. "No, you’re not. You’re acting exactly the way you’re supposed to. Just don’t become too distracted. We’ve still got to deliver tonight," Giselle said and gave Marie a hug. "They’re about to start. Come and sit with me and Jonah." Giselle smiled. "He’s doing his impression of Sherlock Holmes again. That ought to relax you a bit."
Marie couldn’t help but sneak one last glance through the curtain as Giselle guided her away. She noticed something in an instant; Cleo’s seat was empty.
Derek tore his eyes from the stage and smiled as he lowered to his haunches. Cleo ran up the steps of the theater and into his arms. He lifted her easily and hoisted her on his hip when she reached him then stood. He cast one more glance at the stage once again but the little gap in the curtain had closed.
He looked back at Cleo. "Hey, kid."
Cleo smiled widely at him. "Grandma Nat said you weren’t coming," she said. Derek smirked. "I got a complementary ticket. Do you wanna come and sit with me in the balcony?" He asked. Cleo nodded eagerly. He had offered to give the pass to his grandma, but she preferred sitting near the stage, his dad was staying with her. Derek scanned the crowd until he noticed a hand lift.
His grandmother sent him a smile that made him sure she was relieved to have him there. Even his dad and boss were smiling at him. He almost groaned. Derek shot them an obviously fake smile and a courtesy lift of his chin in acknowledgement. He pointed at Cleo then the balconies. His dad understood immediately and nodded.
"Thanks," Derek mouthed just as the lights dimmed and the crowd’s murmurs ended with a quiet hush. "Well, we better grab our seats," Derek whispered and walked up the steps with Cleo in his arms.
By the time they made it to the balcony, the first performance had already started. He sat back on the comfortable sofa and turned his attention towards the stage. It was difficult not to become engulfed by the tremendous performances. Musicians came onto the stage and produced spectacular music. He might have been more enthralled if Cleo weren’t trying to lean over the balcony rim every now and then.
When they announced the Balaco’s performance, he felt his heart thud with nervous anticipation. Before the curtains pulled back, a beatific note from a violin sounded and hung in the air for a moment, capturing the audience. More notes followed, long and delicate as they vibrated through the atmosphere. A piano harmonized with the violin. A cello joined in as the curtains began to move, opening the three musicians to the audience’s view.
Derek sucked in a breath when he saw Marie behind the piano, her fingers quick, graceful and skilled as always as she played. There was something dreamlike about her, like she was an image his mind had produced out of deprivation of her. Maybe it was the way the light hit her, maybe it was the music.
It was probably the music. The melody stirred something in his chest and caused his limbs to feel like lead. No one in the entire theater moved other than the musicians on stage, not a sound was heard from the audience, maybe no one even breathed, not until Giselle played the final note and lowered her violin from her shoulder.
The silence endured for a moment longer before the applause erupted from the audience. Derek was on his feet before he realized he intended to get up, and so was the rest of the audience below. His eyes remained on Marie as she got up from behind the piano and joined her sister and cousin for a bow. Even from the distance he was from the stage, he could notice her smile vibrating.
Marie blew out a breath of air when the curtains closed and nearly collapsed into her sister due to how weak her knees were. Regardless of how many times she had performed, the nerves got to her every time. She heard them announce the intermission. Giselle gave her a massive grin and squeezed her hand as they walked back stage.
"That was amazing!" Giselle hugged Marie tightly then turned towards Jonah and gave him the same hug. "You two were spectacular. Ah, best musicians I have ever worked with, hands down," Giselle said when she released her cousin. "I love you guys so much!" She exclaimed, looking from Marie to Jonah and back.
Jonah laughed breathlessly, revealing how nervous he actually was. "That was pretty awesome," he admitted. Marie felt her stomach grumble with a sudden emptiness. She laughed. "Okay, now I’m starving," she said, clutching her stomach. Giselle laughed and gave Marie’s shoulders a gentle shake. "You were incredible! It was flawless. I couldn’t have done a better job."
Marie scoffed and smiled. "If you could play all three instruments at once, then Jonah and I wouldn’t have even been here," Marie said. Jonah stuck out his bottom lip, brought his eyebrows together and gave a side nod. "True," he said and touched Marie’s shoulders. "But I agree with Giselle, again. You deserve a pizza after all of that stress."
"Ooh," Marie murmured and smiled dreamily at the thought. "We’ve got about forty minutes between now and the final curtain. I’ll probably faint of hunger if I had to go out, especially on heels and delivery is going to take too long. How much do you love me, Jonah?"
Jonah laughed. "I’ll get on it," he said and walked in the direction of the exit. Giselle giggled quietly as she watched him. "That’s a character, that one. Love him." She looked at her sister. "You were absolutely radiant on stage," she said, her voice softer. "You’ve never loved it as much as you did tonight."
Marie nodded, not even hesitating. Regardless of how nervous she was, she did love it! The thing that had caused her so much torment for so long had embraced her tonight. She felt comforted by the melody as she played and managed to hear how beautiful it sounded instead of listening for when she would blunder. She had finally surrendered to the music and it was amazing.
"Don’t tell me you’ve reconsidered now? We’ve gone through so much already!" Giselle mocked when she saw her sister’s expression. Marie laughed. "No," Marie said and sighed. "No, I am definitely not changing my mind. I’m ready for something new."
"Something that makes you happy."
Marie nodded and bit the inside of her lip.
"When are you going to talk to him?" Giselle asked. "After the final. I think all the hype should be over. He might not take it well as it is," Marie said. Giselle nodded. "Good idea. Now –" Giselle’s eyes softened with compassion. " – when are you going to talk to him?" She asked with stern emphasis on the last word. Marie’s chest tightened slightly. She looked away to hide the sting she felt at knowing he hadn’t even come to see her perform. She was sure he wouldn’t come, but she still had a shadow of hope that he would. What she would say or how she would find the courage to speak to him was a mystery to her.
"He’s here tonight."
Marie’s eyes flew back to her sister. "What?" She breathed out, her palms beginning to sweat. "No, he’s not."
Giselle smiled mischievously. "I gave him a balcony pass," she explained and glanced at something behind Marie. "And a backstage pass."
Marie blinked and took a moment to settle her breathing before she looked over her shoulder. Her heart leapt to her throat when she saw Derek standing by the entrance. He paused when her eyes met his and stared at her, seeming to wait for her reaction.
"I think I’m going to mentally prepare for my solo performance. I’ll tell Jonah to leave your pizza in the common area." Giselle was already walking away by the time Marie turned to respond.
She heard Derek’s footsteps as he came close and breathed in deeply through the nose.
Marie looked at Derek, her nerves tight. She used her left hand to push pack her right hand’s ring finger until it hurt. Her chest seemed to close when she locked eyes with him. "Hey," she said quietly. "That was . . . incredible, Marie," he said. He sounded different, she noticed. His tone was lower, his words coming out gentle and deliberate.
She felt her lip tug at a smile. "Thank you. I can’t believe you came."
"I didn’t think you’d want me here."
She dropped her eyes. "I didn’t think so either. At least not until I thought you weren’t coming," she admitted. He smiled, making her press harder on her finger to keep from showing the effect he had on her. Derek reached out and placed his hands on hers then eased her fingers from each other. "Stop that. If you break your finger I might have no reason to come watch the musical Saturday," he said. Marie stared at the way his fingers stroked over her shaking ones. "You unnerve me," she said quietly with a hint of self-mockery in her voice. She could feel his gaze on her but refused to look at him.
Derek kept staring at her, his chest burning strangely as he did. With great reluctance, he released her soft fingers. Knowing he would be tempted to touch her again, he stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"Did you grow bolder since the last time I saw you? The Marie Balaco I know doesn’t easily admit her feelings unless she thinks it’s what someone wants to hear," he said. Her lip twitched. "I’m trying to be more honest," she admitted and looked at him carefully. Derek had to force himself to breathe evenly. She wasn’t the only one unnerved. The desire to apologize filled him. A stronger desire seized him still.
When she started fumbling with her fingers again he groaned. He had been staring again. "Would you please just stop doing that? Seriously, you’re going to break something and your dad’s going to kill me," he said, reaching out and tugging her fingers apart. To his surprise, she giggled. "How are you still so scared of my father?" She asked. "Respectful," Derek corrected. She laughed again. "Sure, let’s call it that," she said. He smirked. "Let’s just not talk about it. I value my ego."
"Oh, and we wouldn’t want that bruised. What would you have left?"
"Besides my looks? My intelligence, my wit, humor–."
"Which brings us right back to vanity," Marie said with a smile. "Besides, wit is a combination of intellect and humor so they’re mutually exclusive in that sentence." He smiled and noticed that he had braided their fingers together.
"Do you have to be such a smart ass?" He asked as he stroked the back of her thumb with his. This felt right. The burning sensation in his chest had subsided into a warm tingle.
"Someone has to tell you when you’re wrong," Marie said.
"I don’t remember ever opening up that position."
She raised an eyebrow. "Are you opposed to it?"
Derek felt his lips spread into a grin. Damn, she was adorable. It would be so easy to end this silly argument by just kissing her. His heart skipped a beat. He wanted to. It scared him how much he wanted to.
Derek shook his head to clear it and laughed. "Why is it that you always have an answer for everything?" He asked instead.
"It only happens with you."
"Does that make me special?"
She paused and smiled at him. Ah, he missed that smile. Marie dropped her eyes sheepishly.
"Yes," she admitted and looked at him again. "Regardless of . . ." she shrugged. "– everything, I can still count on you to make me smile," Marie said. He felt exactly the same. Unable to resist it anymore, Derek let go of one of her hands and brought his fingers to her cheek. He lifted her chin and leaned in.
"It’s one of the things I love about you."
Derek froze. The tingling warmth instantly swept away. He became acutely aware of his heartbeat that sounded in his ears. Her smile became tender as she watched his reaction. She pulled up her shoulders helplessly.
"I’m still contemplating on how honest I should be," she said and looked at their hands again. "Derek. . . Being around you makes me happy, more so than anyone I’ve ever met before. . . But it is torture to be with you and having to hold back."
Derek could still only stare at her. Marie’s chest rose then lowered visibly as she breathed in and sighed.
"This –." She gave his hand a squeeze and looked at him. " – this is lovely, being here with you. But it’s incomplete, and it’s just not enough for me to hold back my feelings anymore," she said and detangled her fingers from his. Derek dropped his hand limply. Don’t, he begged in his mind. He couldn’t seem to make his lungs work correctly.
"I’m not going to say it," she said as if she had read his thoughts. She smiled solemnly. Marie placed a hand on his shoulder and stood on her toes. His whole body tensed up when her lips brushed over his, warm and soft. She pulled away before he could respond. He didn’t even realize he had closed his eyes until he felt her hand leave his shoulder and he opened his eyes to see her standing a few steps away.
"You’ve either got me completely or not at all," Marie said as she backed away. "Enjoy the rest of the show, Derek."
As Derek watched her disappear around the corner, he released a shaky breath.
"Shit," he said breathlessly and ran a hand through his hair as he turned around. He was unhinged to say the least. When he reached for the door he noticed his hands were shaking. He stared at his fingers for a second before yanking the door open and clenching both his hands into hard fists. He needed to splash some cold water on his face. He was suddenly grateful that she had left him to think.
What the hell?
"Derek, you’re leaving?"
Derek turned at the sound of his father’s voice. He was already outside heading towards his car. When had his dad even notice he had left? He didn’t have time for this.
"I need a drink," he said simply and turned around to continue his mission for his car. His dad fell into step with him. "Then you’re going to need a sober driver as well. You look like hell. What happened?"
Derek didn’t slow down. His neck twitched as he tried to hold back his frustration.
"Derek, don’t be stupid. You’re not going to stop at one drink. Let me drive with you," Mr. West said when Derek reached his car. He glared at his dad as he opened the door. John West stood in front of the car, a look of stoic determination in his eye. Derek realized that nothing short of being run over would move his father from the front of that car. His first instinct was to tell his father to piss off, but logic won in the end. He blew out a breath.
"Get in the car," Derek said and slid into the driver’s seat.
They drove for less than ten minutes before they reached a quiet bar. He ordered a whiskey while his father just lifted his hand, refusing anything. After downing one glass, Derek felt his nerves relax a bit, but not enough. He gestured for the bartender for another.
"She’s going to make me lose my mind," Derek said. His fingers were still shaking slightly, something that infuriated him. He let out a breath of air and closed his hand around the glass of whiskey the bartender had topped up.
"I don’t know what it is about her but it’s not fun," he said and took a sip. "I think I might have an idea of what it may be," his father said. "Whatever it is, it needs to stop," he said and peered into the glass. One more sip and he’d need another. He raised his fingers for the bartender to bring him another before this one was even properly empty. His dad placed a hand on his arm and lowered it before the bartender noticed. Derek shot him daggers with his eyes.
"You don’t need a drink for this, Derek. You may think I’m the last person to advice you on this, but trust me. I wish someone was there every single time I went to the bottle because of fear and love."
"Love?" Derek scoffed. What the hell was he talking about? If love was what got him to pass out on the toilet seat countless times when Derek was a child then Derek wanted less part of it than he had before.
"I loved your mother." His father’s eyes softened and filled with a sorrow that caused Derek to momentarily forget his anger. "I loved her so much that it nearly killed me. When she left I couldn’t imagine going on with my life." He dropped his eyes and removed his hand from Derek’s arm. He blew out a breath of air and looked away. Derek stared at him as his father battled his inner demons. "Love is a powerful thing, Derek. It makes you do things you never thought you were capable of doing. It makes you feel like you’re being ripped apart but at the same time there’s nothing more incredible." Mr. West began to scratch on something on the table. "She was devastated when she found out she was pregnant with you. I was ecstatic. We were too young, too broke, too stupid to fully realize what it meant to have a child. I thought it was the best thing that could ever happen because I knew she didn’t love me. I thought, ‘Yes, now that we’re having a baby, she’ll have to love me. She’s bound to me forever.’ She proved me wrong. When she left it destroyed me. I couldn’t see any purpose anymore. I couldn’t look at you for days because you were a constant reminder of her and that she’d never love me."
Derek could only stare as he waited for his father to collect his emotions before continuing.
"Thank God for your grandmother." He shook his head. "I can’t imagine what would have become of you, what I could have done to you if . . ." He dropped his hand in his hands in shame. When he lifted his head he looked at Derek with glassy eyes. "I’m so sorry, son. I wish I could do everything all over. Do it so differently. I wish I could have been there and taught you something about love." Derek flinched. "Love is a terrifying thing, Derek. But it’s also the most incredible thing if you let it happen. Marie is not Angelica."
Derek’s stomach flipped. "And she loves you. It’s easy to see. And that feeling that you don’t understand, that scares you so much that you’ve had to come get a drink –." He lifted the glass off the table and set it back down. " – that’s you wanting to love her and not knowing how, because you don’t recognize it. Trust me, I was the same. And if you’re anything like me, you think you can’t love but believe me, you’re more than capable. You need to let her love you and you need to allow yourself to love her. If you don’t, it’s going to be the biggest mistake you’ll ever make in your life. Don’t let my mistakes, my history, stop you from the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to you. It’s going to scare you to your bones, but it’s going to make you happier than you’ve ever thought possible, especially since she feels the same way. There’s never going to be another Marie."
His dad gave him a small smile. "You might not ever get it again."
Derek picked up his drink and tossed down the rest of the burning liquid then slid the glass away. He cleared his throat. "Sign the adoption papers," he said. Surprise changed his dad’s expression. "We’re not talking about that right now," he said. Derek straightened up and buttoned his blazer unnecessarily. "I know. But while we’re on the topic of denying yourself happiness." He looked at his dad and held his gaze for a moment. "I want my sister to officially be part of this family," he said. Mr. West’s brow relaxed slowly as his eyes widened. "How long have you known?" He asked. Derek pulled up his shoulders. "A while."
"Why didn’t you say anything?"
"I figured you’d tell me when you were ready," he said. "I got tired of waiting." He released a pent up breath. "If you could find it in yourself to take in the daughter of the woman who broke your heart and almost ruined your life . . ." Derek shook his head.
"I don’t know . . . Marie is . . ." He pulled up his shoulders. "She’s my best friend," he admitted. He had never felt closer to another human being in his life. It was like he was bound to her by a force he couldn’t see or control. His dad was right about one thing, there would never be another Marie.