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His small overnight duffel swung from his shoulder to graze his hip as he took the stone steps two at a time. He'd hoped to arrive earlier, to catch the entire concert, but the plane had been late leaving Raleigh, even later landing in Chicago. Not that he should complain, he told himself. He'd been lucky enough to have gotten a last-minute seat.
The wooden doors of the hall stood open in invitation to the warm May breeze. Looking for all the world as though he'd been invited himself, he strode through the empty lobby and followed the sounds of animated applause to the main entrance of the auditorium. The house was packed. As he prepared to join the standing-room-only crowd just inside the door, an usher materialized by his side.
He ignored the question. "How much have I missed?" His gaze passed over the throng of heads to the stage, there riveting on the one female member of Montage. Even if there had been other women in the ensemble, even if he had never seen her photograph, he would have been drawn to her. She was as breathtaking as he'd imagined, and Lord only knew he'd done his share of imagining since he'd first seen that picture atop Tom Busek's desk.
"We're about midway through the second half. Do you have a ticket?"
Never once looking at the usher, he launched a diversionary tactic. Diversionary tactics were his specialty. "Damn! I wanted to catch more of the show." Entranced, he broke into a smile that was broad in calculated pride. He jutted his chin forward. "That's my girl. Rachel Busek." In truth, the smile wasn'tall for show. He couldn't take his eyes from her. "My plane just touched down from North Carolina. She doesn't know I'm here." His grin persisted, taking on a faintly mischievous slant.
The usher took a minute to look him over. He was certainly older than the average member of an audience filled to overflowing with students, late thirties, perhaps forty, clean, not bad looking. The voice was right, bearing just a hint of a twang. And the look of pleasure on his face could hardly be mistaken, any more than could the overnight bag he carried. The usher cast a glance toward the woman on stage, then refocused on the tall man beside him for a moment's speculation.
"Sorry I can't give you a seat. No one's budging. You'll have to stand back here with the rest. "
"That's fine. Fine."
The crowd stilled as a soft piano struck the opening chords of an instantly recognizable tune. There was a murmur of appreciation, a scattering of applause, then strains of violin, cello and guitar as Rachel Busek raised the flute to her lips.
James P. Guthrie had never been a concert goer; indeed, his background had held anything but culture. Yet he held his breath, feeling the anticipation of the audience, sharing it as she inhaled, and bowed into the song. "Greensleeves." Even he recognized it now, though the notes were more sweet and vibrant, the rendition more poignantly beautiful than any he'd heard before. He was mesmerized as much by the haunting sound of the silver flute as by the woman whose breath, whose lips, whose fingers orchestrated that soulful tone.
She was dressed in white, with gentle frills at her neck, wrists and ankles. Her long blond hair flowed gently over her shoulders, fanning as she moved with the feeling of the song, sorrowful, innocent and infinitely soft. Her skin was pale, her hands delicate. Though one of seven in the ensemble, she seemed apart, playing with them yet somehow rising above to the level of a true virtuoso.
His applause was as hearty as any around him when the song ended. Then she smiled, and his pulse quickened. His hands stopped midair, wavered, and dropped to his sides. In all his years, he'd never been as touched by a woman's smile. Direct and unfettered, it held warmth, gratitude, even a kind of shyness that he'd never have attributed to a seasoned performer. When, cheeks flushed, she turned her smile on her fellow musicians, Jim Guthrie felt sheer envy.
Propping his elbows on the wood railing before him, he stood, spellbound, through several classical pieces. They were utterly foreign to him yet familiar now in the richness of tone produced by that one gleaming instrument. When, after tumultuous applause, shouts from the audience brought another song he recognized, he grew more alert. "Duelin' Banjos." He'd seen the movie that had brought it fame, and the song itself, the spirit it embodied, was a hard one to forget. But "Duelin' Banjos" after Mozart, or Bach, or whatever the hell it was they'd played moments before?
Then, in a suddenly silent house alive with expectation, the guitarist began to slowly, skillfully strum the opening chords of the duel. His message was clear, a resonant dare that was picked up, after no more than several seconds' pause, by the coy vibrato of the flute. Jim leaned forward, one of many who held their breath. The guitarist plucked each note carefully, eyeing the flutist all the while; Rachel answered likewise, with the confidence, if not the laziness, of a purring kitten. When the guitar came again, tossing in agile slurs on the last two notes, the flute, undaunted, echoed smugly. Once more the guitarist boldly declared his terms; once more the flutist met them slyly, tone for tone. The next exchange was slightly faster, the next even more so, until at last, with a jumping into the fray of the violin, cello, and finally piano, the heart of the duel was on.Variation on a Theme. Copyright © by Barbara Delinsky. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.