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Her fingers glided flawlessly over the taut strings of her violin.
Little by little, as she played, Elizabeth Stephens felt the same old longing creeping over her, the desire to be part of the party instead of merely providing the music for that party.
The moment she realized that her mind had drifted, and that she was feeling way too sorry for herself, Elizabeth winced with guilt.
Here she was, not just stitching together a passable living allowing her to make ends meet, but happily making a very decent living.
Oh, she couldn't go put a down payment on a yacht anytime soon, but she was more than just getting bywhile others in her chosen field had either been forced to give up their dreams entirely, or were doing it more as a hobby that they tried to fit in around their day job.
Luckily, her day job also featured playing the violin. She managed to make a good salary by melding a couple or so different varieties of orchestra engagements. One gig involved playing in the pit for a theater group that was currently trying their hand at a revival of Fiddler on the Roof, another entailed being part of a six-piece orchestra that periodically was called in to provide the background music being scored for a romantic-comedy series.
The last gig involved working alongside several musicians on a commercial for an insurance company. It paid double because they not only played the music but were also seen playing. Her brother Eric had teased her about her screen "presence" and had asked her for her autograph.
And all those jobs didn't include the weddings, anniversaries, graduation ceremonies and various other social engagements that regularly came her way.
Like this one, Elizabeth thought, taking care to keep her smile in place as she and the four other entertainers who had been hired to perform at Barry Edelstein's Bar Mitzvah began playing yet another song.
It wasn't the thirteen-year-old who had triggered her thoughts about sitting on the sidelines, playing while everyone else was having a good time. Instead, it was the Bar Mitzvah boy's older sister, Rachel. The striking brunette seemed to be completely oblivious to her surroundingsand that included the musicas she gazed up into the face of the young man who was holding her to him so tightly.
As she looked on enviously, it appeared to Elizabeth that there didn't seem to be enough space between the two young people for a breath to sneak innot even a shallow one. Anyone could see that they were lost in one another's eyesand very much in love.
Elizabeth suppressed a sigh. Here was another occasion of her supplying the theme songs for someone else's life, someone else's romance. Without realizing it, the smile she'd kept fixed on her face slipped a little and a small frown took its place.
When was it her turn? she wondered in another moment of self-pity. When did she get to be swept up in her own romance?
"Everything okay, Lizzie?" Jack Borman whispered between barely moving lips as he leaned over toward her.
Jack was playing the portable keyboard he brought to all their mutual engagements. It was because of her previous association with Jack, whom she'd met while still in college, that she had gotten this particular gig, as well as a number of other engagements over the past few years.
Networking was all part of the life of a musician. If you managed to make enough acquaintances in this business, you hopefully got to playand eaton a fairly regular basis.
Elizabeth disliked being called Lizzie by some people and she knew that Jack was aware of that, but for some reason, calling her by that nickname seemed to amuse him. Since Jack was the source of a decent amount of work latelyand they were friendsshe wasn't about to belabor the point that being referred to as "Lizzie" made her feel as if she were ten years old.
That it was also, coincidentally, the name of one of her neighbor's catsa calico cat that was undoubtedly the fattest feline she'd ever seen outside of a documentary on the Discovery Channelmade the name even less desirable to her.
Elizabeth leaned ever so slightly closer to Jack and his keyboard. "I'm just fine," she murmured, hoping that he'd leave it there.
But when their eyes met, she realized that she should have known better. Jack liked to think of himself as a minor deity, fixing things that had gone wrong in the lives of "his people," as he referred to the folks he kept on his roster of potential musicians to call whenever the need for a small orchestra came up.
Of all the musicians Jack had amassed to call for the various affairs he was contracted to play, he'd sent the most amount of work her way. It was no secret that he was interested in her for more than the way she handled a bow.
His interest had a definite social aspect to it, but so far, Elizabeth had managed to get out of accepting his various invitations to "unwind" after a performanceor the handful of rehearsals that preceded those performances.
His bushy eyebrows drew together over his hawklike nose as he scrutinized her closely. "You don't look fine," he informed her.
"Must be the lighting," she murmured, doing her best to terminate the conversation.
Served her right for letting her thoughts get the better of her, Elizabeth upbraided herself. She was here to playand pay her rentnot to wax envious at what it appeared others had that she did not.
For all she knew, what she thought she was witnessing could be strictly an illusion as well. Maybe this couple wouldn't even be together this time next year.
If that did turn out to be the case, she certainly didn't envy either of them the breakup that might be looming on the horizon.
A breakup, she thought, that would inevitably be filled with heartache if either one of them actually loved the other even half as much as appearances would indicate.
Enough already, Elizabeth silently chided herself. What's wrong with me, anyway?
She knew she was living her dreams. She had to cherish that and stop dwelling on what she didn't have. When had she gotten so negative?
Besides, careful what you wish for, remember?
With effort, Elizabeth drew her attention away from the romantic couple and closed her eyes, looking as if she were losing herself in her music.
What she was actually doing was protecting herself from making any further eye contact with Jack. She knew that in turn would leave the door open for him to make suggestions as to how to "put a smile on your face" as he liked to put it.
While she was grateful to Jack for the jobs, she would have been far happier just chalking it up to mere friendship. After all, if she were playing in an orchestra or ensemble that found itself needing a pianist, he would be the one she'd recommend.
But she had the uncomfortable feeling that he was actually sending gainful employment her way in a thinly veiled attempt at seducing her.
Eventually, she knew she was going to have to face up to telling him that there was absolutely no chemistry between them, that there was more chemistry between Columbus and the Native Americans when he landed on the shores of the New World than there was between Jack and her.
Elizabeth bit her lower lip, knowing that time was coming sooner than later.
Her eyes flew open as she heard Jack whisper, "I'm having a little party of my own after this shindig. If you're interested.. " he added meaningfully.
She upped the wattage of her smileone of her best features according to her fatherand said, "I'd really love to"
Jack looked startled, but managed to recover quickly. "Great, I'll"
"but I can't," Elizabeth continued in very hushed tones so as not to interfere with the music. "I've got to get ready for my studio gig in the morning. It's for an episode of More than Roommates?''
The name of the popular sitcom evidently meant nothing to Jack since he didn't watch episodic television. He frowned over his apparent strike-out. Again.
"That's tomorrow?" he asked vaguely.
Elizabeth nodded, concentrating harder, determined not to miss a single beat. "That's right."
Jack grew silent for a moment. He was devoted to his craft, but he also clearly had designs on being more than just a fellow musician in Elizabeth's eyes.
"Blow it off," he told her suddenly. "I can get you another studio gig with"
She cut him off with a slight, although emphatic, shake of the head. "I already agreed to it. You're only as good as your word in this business," she reminded him as tactfully as she could. Jack had it in him to be a really good friend and she didn't want to hurt his feelings, but she didn't like having her back to the wall this way, either.
Jack shrugged, his thin shoulders rising and falling rather hard beneath his tuxedo as he muttered, "Your loss."
The way Elizabeth said "I know" helped assuage his wounded ego just as she'd intended. She could see it in his expression as he pulled himself away from the carefully couched rejection.
Maybe eventually they'd work this thing out, she thought. At least she could hope.
Elizabeth threw herself into the next number and tried to put this unpleasant episode behind her.
Her apartment felt lonelier than usual as Elizabeth let herself in later that evening.
She'd deliberately left a light on when she'd departed earlier for the Bar Mitzvah, anticipating that she just might need help in being upbeat when she came home.
Unfortunately, the light didn't manage to do the trickthat aching loneliness was still waiting for her.
Or rather, it had ridden home with her in the car, growing more and more acute with every mile that brought her closer to her empty apartment.
Locking the door behind her, she threw her keys and purse onto the top of the small bookcase near the door and stepped out of her shoes.
Maybe she needed a pet, Elizabeth mused. A warm, happy puppy to jump up and greet her as she came through the door.
For a split second, she actually considered it. She certainly had an abundance of love to give to a pet. But then she thought of how guilty she'd feel about keeping the poor thing cooped up in the apartment while she was away at work. Considering how sporadic and unstructured her engagements were, the puppy wouldn't be able to have anything that resembled a normal, regular schedule.
Besides, she reminded herself, Mrs. Goldberg had Lizzie and she was forever telling her how lonely she was for actual company ever since "her Albert" had passed on. The feline, while fairly affectionate, still didn't fill the gap she had in her heart, the older woman had confessed sadly.
No, the cure for this loneliness that kept wrapping its tentacles around her lately was just more work, Elizabeth decided. It was while she was playing that she felt whole, as if she was contributing something worthwhile and beautiful to the universe. The violin was capable of making its audience both laugh and weep, and she could make it do both with aplomb.
Elizabeth glanced at the answering machine as she walked past it. The red light was blinking, telling her she had messages.
One, she knew, was bound to be from her father. That wonderful man always called her every night, no matter how busy his day had been, just to check in on her.
Now there's something to really be grateful for, she told herself. Not everyone had a father like that, a man who had single-handedly raised her and her two younger brothers while he was juggling a full-time career as a physician.
With very little warning, he'd been blindsided by his wife's sudden onset of pancreatic cancer and just like that, he'd found himself a widower with three young children.
Rather than farming his kids off to a female relative, or gladly abdicating his role to some full-time nanny he paid to raise his children, he'd painstakingly rearranged his life so that he could be there for every school play, every concert, even every parent/teacher conference. Elizabeth would forever be grateful to her dad for all the sacrifices he'd made over the years. There wasn't anything that she wouldn't do for himand she knew her brothers felt the same way.
Maybe that was part of why she was having such trouble finding someone to share her life with, Elizabeth thought. She wanted to meet a man who had the warmth, the integrity, the sensitivity that her father had. She supposed that her standards were just too high.
But then, her father met those standards. So wasn't it reasonable to believe that there might be someone else in the world like that? Someone who, in addition to all the aforementioned attributes, could also make her world stand still.
That was how, she remembered, her mother had told her that she'd felt the very first time that she'd met her father.
It was one of Elizabeth's most cherished memories, sitting beside her mother, flipping through an album of old photographs. She remembered it was raining that day. She had to have been around four or five. Eric had been around two, and Ethan was still in his crib. She and her mother had looked over the album for hours. Her mother had a story about every photograph.
The next summer, her mother was gone.
Just like that.
A victim of an insidious, cruel disease. It had taken her father nearly two years to forgive himself for not being able to save her.
That was real love, she thought.
And that was what she was never destined to find for herself. Elizabeth pressed her lips together. She was just going to have to make her peace with thatif she was ever to have any peace at all.
Besides, she thought, how would she feel if she finally found that one special someone and then lost him, the way her father had lost her mother? Maybe it was for the best to just avoid the pain altogether.
With a resigned sigh she went to the refrigerator to see what she had that might lend itself to at least partially filling the emptiness she felt in her stomach.
There wasn't much to choose from.
Her father always sent her home with food whenever she visited him. In addition to being a top-notch physician, her father was also a terrific cook who could throw together sumptuous meals out of next to nothing.
She, however, lacked the cooking gene that thrived so well in his veins. Despite the fact that her brothers both knew how to whip things up, her father had failed to pass that particular trait on to her in any manner, shape or form.
She burned water when she boiled it.