By Ann Regentin
For Max Schwarz, a violinist who grew up in the former East Germany, a chance to tour America looks like nothing so much a needed change of pace. A public, acrimonious divorce from his diva wife leaves him in a tailspin, and America looks like as good a place as any to distract himself.
Nothing, however, goes as planned. His schedule leaves him little time to see the country, and his manager for the duration of the tour will not give him the benefit of the doubt on anything, and there are conflicts with conductors as Max's interpretations of the pieces he must play often varies from that of the men holding the batons. And then there is Bianca.
She's the second bassoon in the orchestra in Chicago, a single mother with a pixie face and violet eyes. The attraction is immediate and, for Max, terrifying. Only when he has to say goodbye does he have to courage to say other things.
What begins as a passionate farewell backstage becomes an ongoing, erotic telephone conversation as Max moves from city to city, learning more about both America and himself in the process. The better he gets to know Bianca, the harder he falls for her, but how can he form any kind of relationship with a woman he may never see again?
Max Schwarz put his fingers on automatic pilot while his eyes wandered over the orchestra. In three days, he'd be playing a concert with these people, his fourth in America, and this was his way of getting to know them. Mostly it consisted of snap judgments based on how they played in rehearsal.
Or conducted. Chicago's conductor wielded the baton as if he were fending off wasps, swatting each beat out of the air as he braced for the one that would follow. He gave his cues as if he were stabbing attacking bears, jabbing right into the heart of the section so no mistake could be made as to who was supposed to be playing when. Max actually flinched the first time he was on the receiving end of this, and had to remind himself that it wasn't him, it wasn't personal. The orchestra simply went on playing, and Max wasn't sure if they couldn't have cared less or if they understood that the music was master and not the man with the baton.
The orchestra. The first flute reminded him of his ex-wife. The first violin hated him, but that was natural. Second cello was paying no attention to him whatsoever. Her eyes were glued to the conductor. Sleeping with him? Probably.
Second bassoon. Hmmm. Round face, pointed chin, hair pulled back, lips wrapped tight around her reeds. She really felt what she was playing and he wondered why she was second to a man who looked like he was playing a two-by-four. He watched her for a few minutes, then something in the back of his mind let him know that he had a solo.
He turned his brain back on, but he kept an eye on the bassoon player. She was watching him over her stand, listening, smiling. She liked the music at least. Maybe she liked him, too. He certainly liked her, but he wasn't sure what to do about it, or even if he should do anything. He'd be in Chicago for only two more nights.
After rehearsal, the conductor took his hand. "Well done," he said, sounding surprised, as if he hadn't heard the CD of Max playing this very piece live in Vienna. Whether because of Lucas, Max's manager for this tour, or his own innate caution, the conductor had chosen music that he knew Max could play in his sleep. This would be a good show at any cost. "A few of us are having drinks," the man added. "Would you and Lucas like to join us?"
"I'd love to. I don't know about Lucas." He hoped not. He and his manager had taken an instant dislike to each other that seemed to get worse with every passing day.
"I'll ask him. You can ride with me."
Lucas did want to go but so did a fair number of others, so Max was able to dodge the man by surrounding himself with fellow musicians. He'd been right, at least, about the second cello. She hung happily on the conductor's arm and on his every word, but the best part was ending up next to the second bassoon. Up close, she was even more appealing. Her jeans hugged her hips and accentuated her small waist. Auburn wisps and curls framed her face, a sprinkling of freckles spilled over her nose, and her eyes were a deep, startling violet. The tympani player sat on the other side of her, a bit protective perhaps, but she turned toward Max instead and offered her hand. "I'm Bianca," she said. "It's an honor and a pleasure to play with you."
"Thanks," he said. Her hand felt just right in his, soft and warm. "It's an honor to be here."
"Have you been to America before?"
"No," he said.
"How do you like it?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I've been too busy to see much of it."
"That's a shame," she said. "Where have you been so far?"
"Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit," he said.
"I've never been to any of those places, so I can't tell you what you're missing."
"What am I missing here?" he asked.
"Lots," she said. "There are loads of museums and a great aquarium." Then she grinned. "We even have a German U-boat."
"You do?" That was news. Then again, he was no historian.
"Yes. U505. It was brought here after the war."
"I didn't know that," he said.
"I took my son to see it when he was younger."
"You have a son?" He hadn't seen a ring on her finger.
"Yes, Ben. He's fourteen and just starting his first year at boarding school."
"An arts academy in Michigan. He was on tenterhooks before he got his acceptance."
"Is he a musician?"
"No, an actor."
"Do you have a picture of him?"
"Yes." She dug through her purse for her wallet and pulled out a small photo of a strikingly handsome boy in an elf costume. "That's from A Midsummer Night's Dream last summer. He played Puck."
"That's quite a big role," Max said, impressed.
"His biggest so far," she said. "He's been acting since he was six, when he got a bit part in a community production of Oliver Twist . He has his eye on Juilliard."
"Will he make it?"
"He'll die trying. Do you have kids?"
"Yes," he said. "Two."
"Are they boys, or girls, or one of each?"
"One of each." They suddenly sounded boring and spoiled compared to Bianca's son.
"Do you have pictures?"
He got out his wallet. "That's Angelika and Leo."
"Oh, she's lovely! She looks just like you." Bianca leaned into Max as she peered over his arm and he smiled at the compliment and the touch. "How old is she?"
"Angelika is twelve. Leo is fifteen."
"He looks a bit like Heathcliffe," she said. "I bet the girls just love him. Are you married then?"
"Thank you," he said. Actually, it was nice to be with someone who didn't know all the gory details. "It was a few years ago. And you?"
"Ben's father and I split up when I was pregnant," she said. "I've been more or less on my own ever since."
"So long?" he asked, surprised.
She grinned. "More or less. I've been a little busy."
"Don't you get lonely?" That seemed like an eternity to Max.
"Sometimes. But being with Ben's father taught me that it's better to be alone than to be with the wrong person."
For a moment, Max had nothing to say. He'd known so many women who were looking for Mr. Right-Now that the idea of one who didn't want or need that surprised him. Was she frigid, or maybe afraid of men? He wouldn't have thought so. Her smile was wide and warm and her eyes sparkled with hidden mischief. Too attached to her son? No, he was in boarding school. Could she really be what she appeared? He barely dared to hope. "Do you like your life?" he asked, then felt his face go hot. This wasn't normal German honesty. It was tactless past the point of rude, but he needed to know more than he needed anything else.
"Yes," she said softly, and when she looked at him, her eyes were wide with wonder and even a trace of pity. "I have a good life. I like it very much."
Those few sentences opened a door into her that he both wanted to fling wide and slam shut. He could see, as if on a movie screen, everywhere she had been, everything she had done and that had been done to her, good and bad. Part of him, the protective chivalrous part, was dead certain that if he opened his arms to her, she would come to him and let him soothe away the rough edges. Another part, the mean cowardly part, knew that if he did, she would see into him the way he now saw into her, and he wasn't sure he wanted that. He wanted to be better for her than he thought he was.
He would leave Chicago in a few days and never see her again. He blew hot and cold on that thought until closing time.