Jerry Chang maneuvered his bulky cello case through the café door and propped it open for the Pearson girls to enter. He couldn’t leave it in the car or the wood might crack from the heat.
A delicious aroma of roasted coffee and rich chocolate filled his nose. Man, he loved this place. Cozy and eccentric, its gourmet food appealed to French-pastry-loving patrons by day, and its vintage style and live music attracted students by night.
A tall, wavy-haired guy sang while he strummed a guitar on the wooden stage. His baritone and animated facial expressions commanded the attention of several giggling girls. Of course. They always fell for guitarists. Why couldn’t someone notice the cellists every once in a while? At least the guy’s voice was natural, sincere, and, to Jerry’s relief, in tune.
He scoured the café for an open table. A young couple with their arms wrapped around each other had already commandeered the lumpy brown couch, and the patio table housed two girls with noses buried deep in biology textbooks. Probably what he should be studying right now. Ugh.
A wooden sign on the wall read, “Life’s too short to sleep. Drink more coffee.” The barista, Victoria and Adrienne’s sixteen-year-old middle sister Marie, flashed a smile. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her bright blue eyes sparkled.
“I’ll take a latte and an éclair.” Adrienne pointed at the cream-filled pastry. “Jerry, do you want anything?”
“Just plain coffee and a ham and Brie sandwich.” Too much chocolate caramel mocha-whatever-it-was-called was sugar overkill.
The hair on his arm prickled when Victoria brushed against him as she stepped up to the counter. A little too close for his own good.
Marie wiped her hands on her jeans and reached for the jar stuffed with tea bags. “Raspberry peach tea?”
“You know me too well.” Victoria grinned. “I’ll take a macaroon, too.”
Adrienne lifted her chin. “It’s a macaron, not a macaroon.”
Victoria rubbed her forehead. “Just because you speak French doesn’t mean we all want a lesson. Marie knew what I meant.”
Those two girls. If only they’d lay off each other.
“What flavor?” Marie pointed to the multicolored pastries. Smart way to dissolve an argument—with food. “The caramel apple is to die for.”
“Perfect.” Victoria said. “And a chocolate mint truffle to go.”
Jerry dipped his head in the direction of an orange couch in the corner. “Let’s grab that seat before it’s taken.”
“Great.” When Victoria sat next to him, her intoxicating scent of roses and vanilla filled the air. His face grew warm. The café certainly was crowded.
Her chestnut eyes bore into his. “I wanted to ask you something. As we were leaving the concert hall…”
Concentrate on her face, you idiot.
“I saw your mom crying in the dressing room. Any idea what was wrong?”
Not another story about Mom. Why’d Victoria always bring her up in conversation? Didn’t they have better things to talk about?
He sighed. “It was probably about the song. She’s nostalgic about that piece, is all. Tchaikovsky can really take it out of you.”
Wrinkles creased her forehead. “ I don’t think that was it. She held something in her hand, maybe an old picture.”
“Hmmm.” A lump formed in the back of his throat. He could take a wild guess who it was, but he didn’t feel like going into all that tonight. “Not sure. But on a different note, I heard Mr. Vatchev has a big announcement for tomorrow.”
She raised her eyebrows. “About what?”
Mr. Vatchev, the conductor of the Belton Symphony, also taught Jerry’s favorite class, History of Symphonic Literature. Any announcement from him always piqued his interest.
“I don’t know yet.” But he let slip during cello sectionals that something was up.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with the Fall Concert?” Victoria’s pretty eyes sparkled with anticipation.
Jerry met her gaze and grinned. “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Scoot over a bit, Victoria, will you?” Adrienne squished between them and plopped her case in front. She craned her neck. “I wanted a spot closer to the musician.”
Victoria grabbed her arm. “Can you sit with us for a second? We need to decide what our string quartet should play at church Sunday.”
Of course she did. Only a year-and-a-half younger than Victoria, Adrienne knew how to catch a guy’s attention.
“You’re not the only one.” Victoria nodded at the group of girls who huddled around the stage.
Jerry peeled off his tux jacket and loosened his bow tie. It wasn’t too bad, sitting on a couch with two girls. Except they were checking out another guy.
Marie arrived with a wooden tray full of steaming liquid and handed each of them their drinks.
After a quick glance at her fellow barista who was assisting the next customer, Marie took a seat on Adrienne’s case. “Make it quick. I’m on the clock.”
“Careful with that!” Adrienne jerked the viola out from under her, and Marie tumbled to the floor.
Jerry couldn’t resist a smirk.
“Watch it,” Marie exclaimed as she popped to her feet. “Where am I supposed to sit?”
Adrienne clutched her instrument. “Not on my case. You’ll break it. Don’t you know how expensive this is?”
“Yeah, firewood isn’t cheap these days.” Victoria sneered.
“So, Victoria, what songs did you have in mind?” Marie asked as she stole a sip of Victoria’s tea.
“I was thinking of Handel’s Water Music.”
Marie shook her head. “I don’t have time to learn something new.
“I guess we could just play Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D.’” Victoria took a bite of the macaron, then handed it to Jerry.
As he popped a piece into his mouth, a delicious blend of apple and caramel danced on his tongue.
Adrienne crossed her legs. “Too cliché.”
Victoria turned to Marie and Jerry. “What do you think?”
Marie took several more sips of tea. “I don’t mind playing second fiddle, since we already know it. I’ve got too much on my plate right now to practice a lot, anyway.”
“What about you, Jerry?” Victoria retrieved her half-empty drink from Marie.
Not exactly the most interesting song for the cello. “I mean, the bass lines are repetitive—”
“See, Jerry agrees with me!” Adrienne raised her cup in triumph.
Jerry took a bite of his sandwich. How could he stay on Victoria’s good side? “I just prefer songs from the Romantic era.” Of course, his preference had nothing to do with the modern definition of romance. But he’d always held a soft spot for nineteenth-century music, an era of emotion and passion. More powerful than the formulaic music of the previous eras and a lot more interesting for the cello.
Victoria straightened her shoulders. “Since we only have tomorrow to prepare, I think we need to stick with the Pachelbel.”
Adrienne rolled her eyes. “I can play it in my sleep.”
Marie swiped Adrienne’s coffee. “It’s fine with me.” She took a sip, then set the cup back down. “I’d better get to work.” She strode over to the counter.
“Gigi also wants us to play the hymn ‘Chief of Sinners Though I Be.’” Victoria drained her cup.
Gigi, the girls’ maternal grandmother, had been their church organist for as long as Jerry could remember.
Adrienne groaned. “Why does she always pick songs about sin? Traditional hymns bore me to tears.”
Victoria clanked her teacup on the table. “I can’t change the lyrics, and I don’t think they’re depressing. We all have to confront the sin in our lives.”
“Ugh, you sound like Gigi.” Adrienne wiped chocolate icing from her pristine nails.
Jerry took a sip of coffee. Time to diffuse the situation. “Victoria, why don’t you write a new arrangement to spice it up? You’re a great composer.”
She paused a moment. Her facial features softened. He’d managed to chip away a fragment of her tough exterior. “Okay, I’ll give it a shot, if Gigi doesn’t mind.”
Adrienne set down her éclair and looked straight at Victoria. “Don’t tell her.”
Victoria winced. “I hate secrets.”
Adrienne arched an eyebrow. “Really?”
Victoria’s face turned as red as the macaron. What secrets was she hiding, anyway?
The music stopped, and Jerry turned his head in time to see the blond guitarist approaching their couch. His stomach muscles tightened. Here to steal the girls.
“I take it all y’all are musicians?” The guy pointed to their instruments, his voice thick with a Texan drawl.
Adrienne flashed him a radiant smile. “Yes, we played a concert earlier tonight.”
He grinned back, revealing beautiful white teeth. “My name’s Matt. Do any of y’all fiddle?”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “I play violin.”
Good. At least she didn’t seem too enamored with the suave guitarist.
Batting her long eyelashes, Adrienne placed her hand on Matt’s arm. “I can fiddle.”
Matt’s muscular biceps flexed as he stroked his stubbled chin. “You wanna join me for my next song?”
“You mean improvise?” Adrienne’s face fell.
“Sure.” He waved a large hand in the air. “It’s easy. Just follow my lead.”
Adrienne’s eyes darted between the guitarist and her instrument, a look of uncertainty on her face.
“What about you?” Matt turned to Jerry. “What do you play?”
Jerry jolted back, surprised the guy had taken any interest in him. He tapped his large case. “Cello.”
“Can you knock out a decent bass line?” Matt asked.
“Sure.” Jerry shrugged.
Matt clapped him on the back. “Then why don’t you join us, too?”
“Couldn’t hurt to try.” Jerry peeled himself off the couch to follow the guitarist. Maybe he’d score a couple extra cool points playing with the guy.
The trio climbed onto the stage, instruments in hand. Matt’s voice boomed into the microphone. “Ladies and gents, a couple of guests will join me for my next song. On the fiddle, we have…” He handed the mic to Adrienne.
She cleared her throat. “Adrienne Pearson.”
Jerry winced. Viola, not fiddle.
“And on bass…” He held the mic to Jerry.
Cello, not bass. But he could play the part. Imitate the double bass players he’d watched in jazz combos. He leaned forward. “Jerry Chang.”
When Matt began to croon, Jerry plucked the strings of his cello with his forefinger. Maybe try a slap bass move. As he clapped his instrument in rhythm, the pulse of the music breathed new life into him, a sense of freedom. Although he’d never played the tune before, it turned out easy to pick up. Basic harmonic progression.
His gaze moved to Victoria, who smiled and waved. Too bad she wanted to move to New York for graduate school next year. And he’d be off to medical school wherever he could get in. His heart plummeted. Four more years of grueling education, not to mention residency after that. But Mom and Dad insisted it was the best path.
“Music’s not a good career for you,” his mom had lectured. “We music professors get paid horribly. Be a radiologist like your father. You’ll make good money.”
If that’s what she believed, why had she insisted he practice three hours every day growing up, just to rip music away from him?
Besides, he didn’t mind living here in a Midwestern college town nearly as much as Mom did. She considered anything less than a sprawling metropolis beneath her dignity.
At the sudden key change, his mind returned to the music at hand. He glanced at Adrienne, who’d barely played a note. After a few bars of complete silence on her part, she’d resorted to an open D string drone. Not much of a fiddler. Her eyes were as wide as whole notes.
All of a sudden, a flurry of commotion caught his eye. Marie had bolted from her post as barista, dashed to Victoria, and grabbed the violin case. She pulled out her sister’s violin, situated the shoulder pad, then climbed onstage next to him. Never knew what to expect from the Pearson sisters. This should be interesting.