Brandon clamped his large fingers around the thick neck of his six-foot upright bass. He glanced over his shoulder at the clock on the back wall of the concert hall. Will this rehearsal ever end? Still twenty minutes until break. He sighed.
The conductor, a man in his mid-thirties dressed in a crisp button-down shirt, waved his arms in perfect precision in front of the violin section. As always, the violinists sped through exciting melodies while Brandon plunked out repetitive bass lines. That’s what happens when you choose bass in junior high orchestra.
At that time in his life, he’d wanted a hobby to keep him away from home as long as possible. His twelve-year-old self never would have dreamed he’d end up a music major at Belton University. A relaxed, go-with-the-flow guy, he’d never fully identified with the “ork dorks” in other sections of the orchestra. Yet seven years later, here he sat, perched on a stool on a fancy stage, a sophomore in college.
Brandon glanced at the score in front of him. Several measures of rests spanned the page. He set his bow on the music stand and ran one hand through his shaggy brown hair. The third movement of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony filled his ears. The nineteenth-century composer possessed a knack for beautiful melodic lines. If only he’d shared more of them with the lower strings.
After the movement wound to a close, the conductor wiped his forehead and gestured to the brass section. Brandon jerked to attention as trumpet blasts pierced the air. No chance to doze during this movement. He squinted at the notes on the page. Dvorak had finally given the melody to the low strings. Time to focus.
His instrument sang as he slid his bow over the strings. When the music’s intensity rose, Brandon increased the pressure on the bow. How exhilarating! He pulled his last stroke through with a flourish.
He slumped lower on the stool. A new sound jolted him back to attention—this time not trumpet blasts, but the sweet song of a flute. His gaze moved to the woodwinds. A thrill of excitement rippled down his spine. A slender girl with wavy brunette hair held a flute to her rosy lips. Chestnut eyes gleamed behind small glasses perched on her perky nose.
Brandon swallowed. As stunning as the music she played, the flutist’s solo soared over the orchestra like a bird above the midwestern plains. How had he never noticed her before? And how could he attract her attention?
Francesca caught a quick breath between phrases. This flute solo demanded every ounce of breath support she possessed. After playing in the Belton University Wind Ensemble for the past two years, she’d finally achieved her dream—acceptance into the Belton Symphony Orchestra, as a junior.
Her fingers flew over the slender silver metal as if on autopilot. She’d played this solo countless times in the practice room but never with an orchestra.
At the age of nine she’d joined the school band and loved every minute of it. She’d sat first flute all through high school, so her decision to major in music was no surprise.
After the last note of her solo died away, she lowered the instrument to her lap and wet her dry lips. She glanced at the clock at the back of the concert hall. Almost time for break. Her gaze dropped to the bassist in front of the clock. With large, muscular arms wrapped around his instrument, he resembled a teddy bear hugging a giant violin. The bass suited him in size. Cute. Her heartbeat quickened. How had she never noticed this guy? She’d have remembered that tan complexion and mischievous smile.
The conductor rapped on his music stand. “Take five. After the break, we’ll run the last movement again.” He shuffled the music in front of him, then strode off stage.
Francesca turned to face Carl, the clarinetist seated behind her, his instrument in hand. A senior now, he’d joined the symphony a year ago. He pointed to her flute. “Not an easy part.”
She shook her head. “My fingers were shaking.”
He laughed. “It gets easier over time. You need to relax.”
A tense smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “How?”
He cocked his head to the side. “I’ll think of something. Right now, I need to catch up with Brandon.”
“A buddy of mine.” He sauntered away.
Francesca turned back to her music. Five minutes to practice before rehearsal resumed.
After the short break, the conductor raised his arms, baton in hand. The trumpet fanfare rang in Francesca’s ears as if to rouse her to action. The muscles in her fingers clamped the instrument.
When the low strings took over the melody, her gaze moved to the bass section in search of the cute teddy bear. He wasn’t there. Don’t be stupid, Francesca. You don’t even know him. Focus.
She raised her flute and drew a deep breath.
As she placed the metal to her lips, a loud honk jolted her out of position. What on earth is Carl up to?
She twisted to flash him a fierce glare. But it wasn’t Carl.
“What?” Her fingers tightened on the flute.
The teddy bear bassist sat in the chair behind her, Carl’s clarinet clutched in his massive hand. He grinned.
Her stomach lurched. Where was Carl?
Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a wave from the bass section. Sure enough, Carl sat on a stool, dwarfed behind the enormous instrument.
Warmth crept into her cheeks as she resumed her solo, all nerves with the cute guy behind her.
The conductor shot daggers from his eyes as he surveyed the orchestra in search of the troublemaker.
After her solo, Francesca spun around to face the bass player. “What in the world?”
He extended his hand. “Hi there. Nice to meet you. I’m Brandon.”
She hesitated, then shook it. Electricity shot through her arm. “Why on earth did you trade instruments?”
Brandon chuckled and scratched his stubbled chin. “Carl said you needed a change in the winds.”
Francesca pursed her lips. “And you agreed? You’re in a heap of trouble.”
He winked. “It’s all right. I’ve got the best seat in the house.”
The following night, Francesca slipped into a blue dress and matching heels. How had she allowed that smooth-talking bass player to convince her to go on a date with him the night before their big concert? What a schmoozer. If only the butterflies in her stomach would settle down.
She peaked at herself in the mirror and ran a hand through her hair to smooth it. Why did she care what this guy, Brandon, thought anyway?
Knock, knock. She opened the door to find Brandon leaning against the wall, a bouquet of lilies in hand.
A large grin spread across his face as he handed them to her. “For you.”
She held the flowers to her nose and inhaled the glorious fragrance. How had he known lilies were her favorite flower? Maybe Carl had told him after she’d gushed about them last spring. The two guys appeared quite chummy at rehearsal.
Brandon looped his thumbs into his khaki pockets. “Where do you wanna go for dinner? I hear the new Italian place is good.”
“Antonio’s? Yes, it’s fabulous. I ought to know, since I’m Italian.”
He chuckled. “I figured, based on your name. I love Italian food.”
“Maybe I could whip something up for you sometime.” The words were out before she could stop them. She’d assumed they’d make it to a second date. What if tonight was a fiasco?
“I’m sure you’re a great cook. And I’d be happy to help. I make killer garlic bread out of a box.” He winked.
“All right. I’ll put you on garlic bread duty.” Maybe this wouldn’t turn out too bad after all.
A few minutes later, they arrived at the restaurant. At dinner, they split an order of Italian salad, spaghetti, and manicotti, Francesca’s favorite.
She gestured at the tube-shaped pasta on the plate, one drenched in marinara, the other in a creamy Alfredo sauce. “I used to make these all the time with my mother.”
Brandon cut off a piece and forked it into his mouth. “Really good. I bet you had fun cooking with your Mom. Mine was always too busy to bother teaching me how to cook—thought it was a waste of time.”
Francesca scooped a bite of the pasta into her mouth. The creamy goodness filled her from the inside out with food and fond memories. “Why did she consider cooking a waste of time?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Didn’t like the extra mess, I suppose.”
Without thinking, she reached across the table and placed her hand on his. “I wouldn’t think it a waste of time. I’ll teach you to cook any day.”
A shiver tingled up her arm as he laced his fingers in hers. “I’m glad to know someone cares about my culinary advancement.” His eyes twinkled.
The next day, Brandon straightened the bow tie on his tux between movements of the Dvorak Symphony. Francesca’s big solo was coming up, and he hoped she’d nail it. Guilt pricked his conscience. He’d kept her out too late the previous night. Not intentionally, but they’d had so much to talk about he’d lost track of the time. He should have known better than to keep the star flute player out the night before her concert.
His eyes darted in her direction. Wow! She looked dazzling in a little black dress. Maybe she’d wear it on their next date, if she agreed to one.
Seconds later, the sound of the flute filled the concert hall. Her puckered mouth kissed the metal as her fingers flew over the instrument. What he wouldn’t give to kiss her right now.
The audience erupted with applause at the end of the Symphony. The conductor gestured at Francesca to encourage her to stand. She flashed a smile at the audience, then glanced his way. His heartbeat quickened. Maybe she was thinking about him after all.
As he tucked his bass safely inside its gargantuan case after the concert, a hand pressed against his shoulder.
“Francesca.” His breath caught in his throat. “You were wonderful. I was worried—”
She popped a piece of a delicious pastry into his mouth.
The chocolate melted on his tongue. “This is amazing. What is it?”
“A cannoli.” She handed him a box of the tiny desserts.
He smiled. “Thanks. They look like miniature flutes.”
“I think that’s why I love them so much.” She pulled one out and held it to her lips like her instrument. Those gorgeous pink lips. “Do you want to learn how to make them?”
His mouth went dry. He cleared his throat. “Yeah.”
She beamed. “Good. It’s a date.”
Yes, a second date. In spite of the reprimand he’d received from the conductor, this change in the winds had turned out well after all.