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Royally Wed CHAPTER ONE
Asher Reed had never considered the cello to be a particularly somber instrument. Eloquent? Yes. Soulful? Absolutely. But melancholy? Never.
Not until now, that is.
How had he missed it? He’d devoted the better part of his life to his music. All of his life—to the exclusion of everything else—if Serena were to be believed. Yet somehow he’d never noticed the sorrowful ache in the way his bow slid across the strings, or the darkness in his instrument’s sonorous bass. It swelled around him now, filling the silent space with an astonishing sadness he could physically feel deep in his chest.
The first time Asher had ever seen a cello had been in elementary school orchestra class back home in Philadelphia. The string instruments had been lined up onstage, from biggest to smallest. Double bass to violin. Asher, along with the rest of the kids, was tasked with choosing which instrument he’d play for the remainder of his primary-school music career. Impressed by its sheer size, he’d been fully prepared to pick the upright bass. But then his teacher played a sample piece on the cello—John Williams’s ominous score from Jaws.
Two notes. It only took two notes for Asher to change his mind.
The cello seemed cool back then. Edgy. Laying claim to it in that dusty public-school auditorium had made Asher feel like a musical badass, inasmuch as a nine-year-old orchestra nerd could be qualified that way.
He probably should’ve seen the writing on the wall—Jaws wasn’t exactly a feel-good film. The cello might have seemed like the tough-guy choice, but somewhere in his years of playing, Asher realized there was a bleakness to its beguiling melody that only a world-weary soul could recognize.
And if Asher was anything after the past couple of months, he was world-weary.
He would’ve liked to blame his strange mood on jet lag. Less than twenty-four hours ago, he’d been cooking eggs in his West Village apartment in New York. The royal wedding of Great Britain’s Princess Amelia had been nothing but a newspaper headline. But today he was in England, sitting in the very church where the wedding would take place in ten days’ time.
A lot had happened since yesterday, leaving virtually no time for sleep. Asher had spent the entire transatlantic flight going over the program for the ceremony. The list of songs seemed daunting, especially considering he needed to get through the star cello solo in less than a week and a half. Not just get through it, but perform it impeccably in front of an audience that would total three hundred million. Leave it to Yo-Yo Ma to select the most difficult cello solo that had ever been written. It was a personal favorite of his, probably because he was the only musician in the world who could get through it flawlessly every time.
But Yo-Yo Ma wouldn’t be the one playing at the royal wedding. Thanks to Yo-Yo Ma’s surprise bout with appendicitis, Asher would. And while Asher was a world-class musician, he wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma—a fact he’d been painfully aware of his entire career.
Asher could sleep once Princess Amelia and Duke Holden Beckett of Atteberry tied the knot and rode off into the sunset in a glass coach, or whatever it was royals did after the “wedding of the decade.” In the meantime, he’d practice until he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Unfortunately, that moment seemed imminent.
Deep down, though, Asher knew there was more going on than just simple exhaustion. His feelings for his music had grown complicated since his breakup with Serena. They’d been engaged, for crying out loud. She was going to be his wife, yet she’d been sleeping with his mentor since before Asher even slipped a ring on her finger.
Now he had an ex-fiancée and an ex-mentor, along with an ex-job. His cello was a siren call now, luring him to a place he knew he shouldn’t go. A place he’d been doing his best to avoid since he’d found out who’d be conducting the orchestra the day of the wedding. The wistful quality of his music seemed to scrape his insides, leaving him raw. Exposed.
Which was ridiculous, considering Westminster Abbey had been closed to the public for hours. The palace had taken pity on him and arranged for after-hours access since he’d been brought onboard as a last-minute substitution when Yo-Yo Ma had fallen ill. As soon as his plane landed, Asher’s driver had taken him directly to the Abbey so he could get a feel for the acoustics. The church would be filled with tourists starting at nine thirty the next morning until nearly four in the afternoon, leaving him no time to practice.
Every minute counted.
Aside from the security officer who’d let him in, Asher was alone. No one was listening, save for the souls of the esteemed people buried beneath his feet.
He’d expected to be surrounded by the ghosts of kings and queens. Royalty. He’d known Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both buried there. But everywhere he turned, he saw his heroes. Writers, poets, composers. He’d positioned the folding chair the security officer had given him to face the Abbey’s famed Poets’ Corner, where Dickens, Chaucer, and Tennyson were buried.
And Handel. Handel, for God’s sake. No wonder nothing he played sounded right. Performing for the royal family, their guests, and the hundreds of millions of people expected to watch the wedding on television would be one thing. Playing for George Frideric Handel, one of the greatest composers of all time, was messing with his head.
Yes, Asher was well aware of the fact that Handel and his crew were dead. All the same, their presence was intimidating.
It didn’t used to be this way. Asher had never experienced a moment of preconcert jitters in his life. He’d always considered stage fright a sign of weakness, frankly.
Asher’s years at Juilliard had been a breeze. While his roommate vomited backstage out of sheer terror before the Spring Chamber Music recital, Asher had been getting the phone number of a rather pretty guest violinist. After graduation, he’d become one of the only musicians ever accepted to the New York Philharmonic on the first audition. He’d never doubted himself. Not once.
Looking back, Asher couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been overly confident. Perhaps his swagger was a by-product of his naïveté rather than talent.
His grip on the bow tightened. No. He refused to accept that. He was good, damn it. Better than good. He was great. One of the greatest in the world.
Jeremy March, the Philharmonic’s legendary music director, never would’ve mentored him if he’d simply been good. March had believed in him. That meant something.
March’s support and encouragement had been meaningful in the beginning, anyway. Asher didn’t know what to believe about the past eight weeks. He no longer knew what had been real about his relationship with Serena. Or with Jeremy. He doubted he ever would.
Asher lifted his gaze to the Abbey’s ceiling, where gold-leaf frescoes shimmered in soft candlelight. This is real. This, right here.
This was his chance to prove himself, to set things right. Everyone in New York wanted to know the story behind his hasty midseason departure from the Philharmonic’s solo series and the other canceled concerts. Rumors of some kind of mental breakdown were swirling. There’d even been an article in the Arts section of the New York Times. Asher hadn’t accepted the invitation to play at the royal wedding in order to prove his worth to the music world, though.
He needed to prove it to himself.
But he could barely pick up his bow he was so tired, and nothing sounded right. Even Finzi’s Romance for String Orchestra, Opus 11, the one piece on the program he’d played countless times, rang with sadness. Every note seemed to drip with heartbreak.
Somewhere in the periphery, he thought he heard something. It almost sounded like a woman weeping.
He was losing it.
He needed to stop. Sleep would fix things. He’d play better after some rest. The opus would sound joyful again. It had to—he was playing for a wedding, not a funeral.
Asher slid his bow over the cello’s strings with excruciating slowness, drawing out the final note as long as possible. It echoed off the marble figures that made up his audience, filling the empty church with sound long after he set down his bow. The space around him was so beautiful it hurt.
Asher closed his eyes. His ears rang, and beneath the fading strains of his music, he still heard it—the soft sorrow of feminine tears.
He hadn’t been imagining things, after all. The weeping was real.
His chest grew tight. Should he say something? He should, shouldn’t he? But when was the last time he’d had any kind of real conversation with anyone?
He felt like an intruder suddenly—in this place, in this country. In this life.
Whoever she was, she sounded broken. What kind of monster would he be if he ignored that kind of heartbreak?
Asher cleared his throat and rested his palms on the shoulders of his cello, aware now more than ever of how the instrument’s parts were named after the curves of a woman’s body.
The neck. The back. The waist.
“Do you need help?” he asked, his voice full of promises he didn’t know if he could keep. He couldn’t even see her. How could he possibly help?
The silence that followed stretched on so long he began to wonder if he’d made a mistake. Perhaps he was alone, after all.
He really needed to get some damned sleep.
“You play beautifully,” she said.
He could hear the tears in her words, but her accent was lovely. Pure, like English cream.
Asher released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. For an insane moment, he’d allowed himself to believe the woman had been Serena, that something had happened between her and Jeremy.
They were all here in London, after all. The three of them, just like the good old days.
“Thank you.” Asher squinted into the semidarkness, but still couldn’t see anyone. The only discernible movement came from the flickering candlelight dancing on the arched stone walls.
“Don’t stop. Not yet,” she said. Asher’s gaze darted to the left, where a sculpture of Shakespeare loomed over a small bench carved into the marble wall. Starlight poured through the stained-glass windows overhead, washing her profile in watercolor hues of blue. “Play something else. Just one more song. Please?”
“All right,” Asher heard himself say.
What was he doing? And what in God’s name was he supposed to play for her?
He picked up his bow with his right hand and wrapped the fingers of his left hand around the cello’s neck.
He closed his eyes and played the first thing that came to him—Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Asher had always considered it the most devastating piece of music he’d ever heard, and undeniably the most beautiful. The first time he ever played it in concert, he’d wept.
The piece was ten minutes long. For the first minute or two, Asher had trouble focusing. He thought more about the mysterious woman than the music. Who was she? And what tragedy had brought her here at such a late hour?
But soon, he began to lose himself in the haunting melody. He stopped holding back, gave up on trying to keep the despair of the music at bay and leaned into it. He dove right in, and once he did, he realized he’d been wrong to resist it. There was a certain kind of purity to heartbreak. To loneliness.
It was honest and true.
She was lonely. He could feel it. Asher ought to know. He’d been lonely for quite some time.
When he reached the end of the piece, his face was wet with tears.
“Thank you,” the woman said.
She was walking toward him now, moving through the darkened church with her head bowed.
Asher knew he should look away, but she moved with a grace that held him spellbound. Come morning, he’d probably wonder if he’d dreamt their whole encounter. Maybe he was hallucinating. She seemed too ethereal to be real.
But then she paused in front of him and lifted her face, and Asher knew he wasn’t dreaming. He knew this woman. Everyone in the world did.
It was her.
The princess bride.