My screwball comedy, Rhapsody For Piano and Ghost, is now available at Amazon, All Romance Ebooks, and wherever fine ebooks are sold…:D
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Forty-five minutes after one of the more humiliating phone calls of Fitz’s life, Ari Scheffield roared up to the curb in his silver special edition Porsche Boxster S.
Ari had the top down, allowing the wind to blow his hair around as if it simply loved him and couldn’t help itself. As always he arrived looking more like a runway model than a forensic accountant. His auburn hair blazed fiery under the bright sunshine, and the scruff of his morning beard winked like gold. He had on sunglasses that hid his eyes, but Fitz knew they raked him over, judging his every molecule and finding each one more unsatisfactory than the last. As he reached over to unlock the passenger door of the hot little car, Fitz would have bet good money that Ari knew he was attracting the attention of every damned person on the street. And that he loved every second of it.
Ari slid the sunglasses down his nose with a fuck-you finger and frowned at him. “Are you panhandling now?”
“No.” Fitz ground his molars together. “I am not panhandling.”
“Jeez, Flitz. Your mom’s been gone what? Three months? And already you’re like some homeless –”
“It’s not what it looks like, Ariel.”
“What it looks like is bad enough.” Ari waited for him to put on his seat belt and then gunned the engine, whipping out into traffic and firing the afterburners to blast through a perfectly orange light.
“Ha, ha.” Fitz settled for holding tightly to his bowl because the convertible didn’t have a bar on the roof to grab. “Just now you probably got your picture taken by the red light cam.”
“There isn’t one in that intersection. Did you want to drive yourself home?” Ari asked smugly. “Oh wait, I forgot. You don’t drive. Why is that again?”
“You know why,” Fitz muttered. Every time he and Ari had to spend ten minutes together, his jaw snapped shut and he talked through his teeth. Situational TMJ disorder.
“I remember now. It was a small matter of your mother’s Mercedes and a swimming pool, wasn’t it?” Ari turned to him and grinned. There was probably fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of orthodontia in that smile. Fitz had seen the pictures of Ari as a child, and at one time they’d given him hope that his own shortcomings could be overcome by the absurd amount of money his mother was willing to throw at them. Now Ari’s magnificently even, white teeth just pissed him off.
“Listen, liebling, when your mom left, she asked me to be on you like sweat, and I have to tell you, that’s not really my best-case scenario.” Ari turned back to watch the road. “I don’t care where you were yesterday, but now that you’ve gotten me involved, there have to be rules, you know?”
“What do you mean, rules?” Fitz had a very bad feeling about this.
“She’s worried about you, man.”
“Yet here I am, picking you up because you have no cash, no phone, and you had no clue where you were.”
Fitz remained silent. What could he say? Ari was right.
Ari shot him another look. “But I must say that’s a very fine bowl.”
“It’s a cassole.” Fitz cradled the solid bulk of the bowl in his lap. With every mile Ari drove, the previous night and the strange men Fitz had met seemed more like something from a dream.
The view beyond the passenger door occupied Fitz’s attention for a while. They sped past the many strip malls and coffee joints that made up his corner of Los Angeles, dog groomers with exclusive pet-treat bakeries, the brushless car wash/Internet café/four-star-fast-food places, and the Botox-in-a-box med spas that seemed to have mushroomed around his home over the years.
He stayed silent until at last they pulled into his neighborhood and traveled the winding streets past hoards of men with lawn mowers and women pushing top-of-the-line strollers.
“You can tell me if you’re in some kind of trouble, you know,” Ari said as he pulled into the drive at Adelaide’s place. “We can talk about anything.”
Fitz bit his lip and considered it. “How long does ecstasy stay in your system?”
Ari’s shoulders tightened, and he looked away. “Aw, shit, Fitz. At the very least, I didn’t think you were stupid enough to get yourself involved in drugs.”
“Right.” Fitz hit the seat belt button, then grabbed his bowl and shoved his way out of the car. “But I can come to you about anything.”
“Wait.” To his credit, Ari got out and rounded the car. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But you know how I feel about drugs, Fitz. They make you stupid. Do you want to throw your whole future away?”
“It’s not like that –”
“You have a gift, you know. Everyone in your life has made sacrifices to help you nurture that, but if you throw it away…that’s just not okay.”
Fitz didn’t blame him for reacting that way. He’d have said the same thing if the situation were reversed. Except it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. Ari would never let himself be talked into anything as asinine as the stuff that Garrett had gotten Fitz to do the night before. Ari was perfect. He couldn’t get the paper in the morning without the neighbors breaking into applause.
“You think I’m gifted?” Fitz bit at the apple of Ari’s praise and regretted it immediately.
Seeing his opening, Ari took it. “Well…maybe just special.”
Fitz turned on his heel and walked away.
“Stop.” Ari followed Fitz as he headed for the door. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how long ecstasy stays in your system. Why?”
“I took something my friend Garrett said was X.” Fitz held his hand up in case Ari was planning to lob another insult. “Don’t bother. I know. It was a bonehead thing to do. I felt really awful when I was on it last night. I think I imagined some stuff.”
“Hallucinated, you mean.”
That was as good a way of putting it as any. Except he’d touched Serge when he’d tried to read the tattoo on his arm, and he’d felt as real as anything. As real as Fitz’s own arm or the cassole he’d been holding. Fitz clutched his pot tighter. “Yeah.”
Ari frowned and looked him over carefully. “How much sleep have you gotten lately?”
“Look, I promised to meet my friend Alex for brunch, but can I come get you later? Maybe we can have dinner?”
Fitz immediately shook his head. “No way. Why?”
“I promised your mom I’d keep you out of trouble while she’s in France.”
“Tell her you couldn’t find me.”
“C’mon, Fitz.” Ari at his most charming was lethal, and he knew it. He removed his sunglasses to reveal eyes so big, so green and luminous you could see them from space. Once again Fitz was on the receiving end of his engaging — if preternaturally perfect — smile.
“All right, but you’re buying,” Fitz muttered.
“That’s the spirit.” Ari clapped him on the back, and Fitz nearly went flying.
“See you later.”
“I’ll text you.” Ari put his sunglasses on again and went back to his car, laughing at his own joke. “Oops. I forgot. You don’t have a phone.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Fitz turned away.
“I’ll be here at four to take you to get a new one. Be ready.”
“What?” Ari called out. “I didn’t hear that.” He gunned his engine again and backed down the driveway before Fitz could respond. He wouldn’t respond anyway. Why would he? It never failed that he looked like an asshole next to Ari. But in a way…? He’d always been awed by the wretched man, like Fitz was one of those people in the rainforest who had never been touched by civilization and Ari was the first airplane to fly overhead.
Fitz turned his attention to the keypad lock. His inability to keep track of his keys was only one reason Adelaide’d had it installed. The fact that it could be opened by satellite came in handy in case she married someone who forgot the complex four-number combination to unlock it. He punched in his code and walked into their house. There was a large foyer with an eye-catching marble medallion on the floor, over which Adelaide’s designer had placed a round table that always held a vase of spectacular, seasonal flowers. That table did double duty, much to Adelaide’s horror, as a place for Fitz to drop whatever he brought in from the outside world.
Julian’s cassole finally found safe harbor among CDs, electronic equipment, flyers, mail, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of Fitz’s forays out. When Adelaide traveled, there was no one to sweep it off into the trash bin every five minutes, so it piled up until Marguerite, who came in Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, could ride him about it.
For a moment he stood in the foyer, simply glad to be home. Its grandeur always made him feel like the exception to the rule, the small, nearly raggedy boy inside the giant gilded cage. He half expected some huge, luxurious pet — one of Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers — to pad down the sweeping staircase and eat him.
Originally he’d planned to shower and change, but he made his way to the kitchen instead, where he could scrub his hands. He hadn’t realized how much he’d yearned for the comfort of the single most important thing in his life until he’d seen it from the entryway, waiting for him. His piano pouted, accusing him of ignoring it. Suddenly he couldn’t get to it fast enough.
The bench waited, pushed slightly askew where he’d left it before his disastrous evening with Garrett and his odd experience with Julian and Serge. Back when he’d still had a date with his crush to look forward to.
It had taken nearly two months of cultivation, of Garrett’s excuses and Fitz’s reticence, of poor planning and worse timing, but they’d finally gone on their date. All along Fitz had signed Garrett into classes he never attended and patiently believed Garrett’s promises. All along he’d listened to Garrett’s excuses about not having enough money to get him through each week. Garrett always seemed so sure that if he just had a little cash, things would work out for them.
Like an idiot, Fitz had given him money, and the rest — as they say — was history.
It might have even been bearable if he hadn’t had to ask Ari, of all people, for help.
Fitz stood before the keyboard of his piano. With the precision of ancient muscle memory, he pulled the bench beneath him to the exact place he needed it to be to reach the pedals and still maintain correct posture. He rested hands lightly on the keys. With each silent touch, his fingertips feathered lightly over the surface of the instrument. It was a ritual of sorts, the foreplay of a lover coming home. When at last he began a series of arpeggios, it was an exercise, another ritual, to warm up his fingers first, then his hands, his arms, and the muscles in his back until the music flowed from every part of him, until every cell of his body was engaged.
He remembered starting out so small his mother had to lift him to the bench. He still faced the instrument in exactly the same way. At that age, he’d fancied the piano was a kind of entity. The Bösendorfer was no more an instrument than it was furniture; it simply existed in his living room, waiting, ready to play with him and for him — to add its unique voice to Fitz’s long hours of practice in the special magic of bringing a long-dead composer back to life.
There was a place to be shy. A place to be uncertain and nineteen. A place in his life where someone like Garrett could come along and mess with him because he was young and needy and naive. But here, seated as he was with his most important childhood friend, ready to worship at the altar of the composers who filled his heart with passionate fire, was not that place.
Fitz’s fingers flew, and he filled the room with music.