Back at the hotel room, Etta stood with her swimsuit in hand. Nothing about this suited her—the attire, or the idea of braving the ocean again. She sighed, then pulled it on. Hmm, maybe she’d add her coverup, wide-rim straw hat, and red sandals. Perhaps those would draw attention away from her middle.
She grabbed her beach bag, opened the door, and crashed into Terrence.
He laid his hand on her arm. “Sorry about that.”
Her face flushed. “No problem.”
They walked side by side to the elevator, through the lobby, and out the door. The ocean’s salty scent washed over her on the balmy breeze. As they strolled the narrow path, Etta immersed herself in the beauty of the resort’s lush landscape. Palm trees overhead rustled in a lazy island breeze. Gerbera daisies, bright against a broad expanse of lawn, lined the walkway until it disappeared into the sand.
Etta knelt to pull off her sandals. Other students splashed in the water several feet away.
Terrence released his grip on her. “Race you to the beach?”
After a moment’s hesitation, she nodded. “You’re on.” In a flash, she sprinted over the hot sand. She clutched her sun hat with one hand and her beach bag and sandals with the other. Wind ripped through her hair and buzzed in her ears. Wet sand slowed her pace, and water pooled in her footprints. “I won!” she exclaimed, panting.
As she pulled to a stop, Terrence slammed into her, and both sprawled into the water.
She giggled as she pushed him off her. “Why’d you do that?”
He fumbled around in the sand. “Why’d you stop?” His hands continued to pat the ground. “Where are my glasses?”
She jumped up. “You lost them?”
“They fell somewhere.” The intensity in his voice increased.
A wave crashed around them, and white foam bubbled at her feet. She shivered.
Moments later, the wave subsided. She picked her way over the remnants of debris left by the tide scanning the beach in vain for any sign of glass or metal.
A few feet away, Terrence crawled on all fours like a dog in search of a buried bone.
He raised his head in the direction of her voice but didn’t meet her gaze. “What should we do?”
She slipped her hand in his and pulled him to his feet. His fingers curled around hers, which warmed more than her hand.
“You’ll have to lead me back to the hotel. What time is it, anyway? Do I have time to visit an eye doctor?”
She shaded her eyes. The sun hung low in the sky. “I doubt it.” This time, it was
her turn to guide him along the path back to the hotel. The poor guy was as blind as she was without contacts.
When she stopped in her tracks, he bumped into her again. “You’ve got to stop doing that, especially now that I’m blind.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Uhhh, pretty bad.”
“I mean what’s your prescription?”
“I think 20/300. Something abysmal.” He ran a hand across his forehead. “Why?”
“Great.” With a quick tug, she yanked him forward again.
He stumbled to keep up. “How in the world is that great?”
She pushed the door open and guided him through the lobby. “I have an idea. It’s crazy, but worth a shot.”
Terrence held his breath as Etta helped him into the swivel chair at the hotel desk.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” He raked his hand through his hair.
“Trust me.” She rushed into the bathroom, then returned moments later with something in her hands. With a plop, she bounced on the bed and spun him to face her.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m teaching you how to wear contacts.”
“What?” His body turned rigid. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’ll never keep my eyes open. Besides, it can’t be good to wear someone else’s contacts.”
“I agree with you. But we’re in a foreign country, we don’t have access to an eye doctor, and you can’t see a thing. Do you want to spend the rest of the trip blind and miss the concert?”
He slumped lower in the chair. “No. Vatchev would kill me.”
“Then it’s contacts for you.”
“What if they’re the wrong prescription? Besides, don’t you need them?”
“In ordinary circumstances, I’d never recommend this. But if your eyes are worse than mine, this is better than nothing. Also, I brought a couple of extra pairs. These are new.”
“I guess I’ll give it a try.”
“Great.” She bent toward him. The warmth of her skin melted him like chocolate on a hot day. Her cute mouth puckered, probably on autopilot from all those years working on her embouchure, as she leaned over him.
Etta pulled his upper lid with her middle finger and his lower lid with her thumb. With her forefinger she pressed the tiny lens to his eye.
He jerked his head back. “What on earth?”
“Hold still.” She pressed him against the chair with her other hand and leaned in again. Now was the time to take her in his arms and kiss her senseless. But the moment her hand approached his eye, his head flinched away.
“Terrence, don’t move. I’ve got to do this.”
He grabbed her wrist. “This’ll never work. I can’t let someone poke me in the eye.”
She lowered her arm. “You give up?” Her mouth intoxicated him with her minty breath.
“No.” He stroked the inside of her wrist. “That’s not what I said. I do need to try. Myself.”
She pulled her hand away. “You think you can?”
He stood up. “Like you said, I don’t have much choice. Now guide me to a mirror so I can figure this out.”
“All right.” She picked up the contacts and ushered him into the bathroom. “I’ll wait for you to finish.”
“I’m headed to the balcony. Holler if you need me.” Etta pulled open the sliding door and stepped outside. She needed fresh air to cool off. What had happened in there? For a moment, she’d thought Terrence might kiss her. Their lips had almost met. But if he couldn’t see, maybe he hadn’t realized how close they were. Geeky Terrence had managed to weasel his way into her thoughts.
As she waited on the balcony, the scents of saltwater and seafood mingled in the breeze. The horizon resembled a canvas filled with brushstrokes and sunset pastels. The water glistened. Light blue became turquoise and darkened to midnight on the far sea. For a moment, the exquisite beauty of the setting drove all other thoughts from her mind.
What would it be like to live this near the sea? She’d spent her entire life in the Midwest, far from the ocean. This was another world. How she wanted to brave her fears and swim in these waters.
A touch on her arm drew her back to the present. When she spun around, Terrence stood nose-to-nose with her, just like the dolphin a few hours before. Either the sharpness of his features without the glasses or the intensity of his gaze caused her breath to catch in her throat. She swallowed. “Do you need more help?”
“Perhaps.” A quirky smile played at the corner of his lips.
“I’ll take a look.” She cradled the back of his head with her hands and examined his eyes.
He reached out to brush her cheek. “Not that kind of help.”
A ripple of excitement flooded her body at his touch.
The hotel door clicked, and the two jumped apart.
Brooke dropped her beach bag on the bed and arched an eyebrow. “What are you guys doing on the balcony?”
Etta wiped her forehead. “Well… umm…”
“I dropped my glasses in the ocean.” Terrence rubbed his eyes again.
Brooke gaped at him. “That’s awful! What are you gonna do?”
“Etta taught me how to wear contacts.”
Brooke’s eyes grew as wide as seashells. “I thought there was something different about you. Nice.”
“Yeah, my vision’s a lot clearer now.” He winked at Etta.
Electricity pulsed through her veins. “Glad I could help.”
The night of the symphony concert, Etta and Brooke bustled around their hotel room. Brooke donned a floral sundress while Etta slipped into a golden dress she’d purchased from the gift shop. First time she hadn’t worn black to a concert in ages. Would Terrence notice?
“I can’t wait for the international buffet,” Brooke said. “I hope they serve lobster.”
“Ick!” Etta wrinkled her nose. “That sounds awful.”
Brooke frowned. “You’ve never tried it. How do you know?”
“Those creepy creatures that stare at you from the plate? No thank you.”
“I’ll bet the desserts are to die for.” Brooke grabbed her oboe case.
“That’s the best part.” Etta beamed. “They might have French mousse au chocolat or whatever you call it.”
“Not the best part.” Brooke flashed a knowing smile. “There might be a cute French horn player, too.”
Etta’s stomach flip-flopped. Of course, Brooke would have realized something was up.
When they reached the patio, the knot in Etta’s belly unclenched. Twinkle lights hung from trees and the expansive gazebo set up for the orchestra. Illuminated by the pulse of underwater blue lights, the outdoor pool resembled a deep-sea world. A beautiful arrangement of tropical flowers adorned each white patio table. Fresh seafood, blackened under garlic butter with a hint of sage, mingled with the salty air of the beach. The retro music of the Beach Boys blasted through the sound system.
“Don’t you ladies look stunning?” Matthieu smiled. The guide sported a fluorescent orange shirt and floral shorts. He extended his elbow. “May I have the privilege of escorting la belle dame, the pretty lady, to the party?”
Brooke beamed. “Of course.” She looped her arm in his, and they strolled toward the buffet together.
“Nice evening, isn’t it?” Terrence’s voice filled the night air.
Etta’s heartbeat quickened as she pivoted to face him. “Yes, it’s a lovely night.”
A vibrant-colored island shirt hung low over his khaki shorts. Stripped of his glasses, he seemed different. Or their relationship was different.
His blue eyes bore into hers. “You look beautiful.”
Warmth spread to her face. “Thanks. You’re not half bad yourself.”
He reached for her hand. “What do you say we—”
“Etta,” Brooke called as she turned back toward them. “You must check out the buffet. You, too, Terrence. It’s to die for.”
His fingers tightened around Etta’s. “Sounds great.”
Terrence’s mouth watered as he surveyed the spread. The buffet boasted food from all around the world—Brazilian steak, Mexican tacos, chicken piccata, Italian Fettuccine Alfredo, stuffed mushrooms, and bacon-wrapped asparagus. The seafood table was laden with cocktail shrimp, honey-glazed salmon, mahi-mahi, crab bisque, and lobster tails.
He handed Etta a plate. “Hard to decide with so many choices.”
She popped a shrimp into her mouth. “Want one?”
She held up the shrimp and offered a bite. The garlic butter melted in his mouth. His brain turned fuzzy at her proximity. “Delicious.”
“Come join us!” Brooke called from a nearby table where she sat with Matthieu.
Normally, he’d have jumped at the chance to sit with Brooke. But tonight, Terrence only had eyes for Etta.
With a little tug on his hand, Etta pulled him along and they sat down at Brooke’s table.
“Which dish do you like best?” Brooke forked a piece of fish into her mouth. “I thought I’d pick the lobster, but now I’d vote for the mahi-mahi.”
“I’m partial to salmon.” Matthieu raised a bite to his mouth.
Terrence eyed Etta, who spread tuna over a slice of bread. “I’d say tuba fish.”
Her cheeks turned as red as the lobster on her plate.
After Terrence had stuffed himself like a crab, he and the other musicians congregated in the gazebo for the concert. Mr. Vatchev had selected the top players of the Belton Symphony to perform for the Maritime Composers Festival. They’d begin with a tribute to the French composer Joseph de Bologne, also known as Le Chevalier de Saint-George. A native of Guadeloupe, the eighteenth-century black composer had made a name for himself throughout Europe and the Caribbean. Tonight, the orchestra would perform his Violin Concerto No. 9, Op. 8 with Belton’s violin teacher as the soloist.
Mr. Vatchev raised his arms to lead the opening bars of the violin concerto. Where was Etta? Oh, he’d forgotten. She didn’t play the first work. The tuba didn’t exist in the eighteenth century. He attempted to focus his eyes on the score in front of him. His vision, while not perfect, was a significant improvement from his usual blind state. He could grow accustomed to this new way of viewing things: the music, the atmosphere, the people, Etta.
After the final flourish of the violin soloist’s bow, Etta climbed the stairs to her place under the gazebo. How wonderful to finally hear the orchestra perform a piece by a fellow black musician! About time.
A moment later, Terrence caught her eye and looked right at her, through to her soul, as though the contacts painted her in a new light.
Mr. Vatchev nodded to the musicians, and swirls of notes poured from the strings as Debussy’s La Mer soared into the night air. This trip might change things for her. Maybe she’d shed her cloak of obscurity, at last, and be noticed for who she really was: the girl behind the big brass.
After a half hour of glorious music, the notes died away. Applause erupted from the audience as Mr. Vatchev gestured for the musicians to stand. Etta beamed at her fellow brass players, proud to be a member of such a skilled section.
The orchestra members filed out of the gazebo, and a jazz combo took their place.
As the music started, Etta’s foot tapped along to the beat.
Terrence tipped his head at the group. “That’s what it means to play brass.”
“Yeah.” She took a deep breath and allowed the rhythm to pervade her senses.
A small group of people congregated on the dance floor. Matthieu fawned all over Brooke as they danced together.
Terrence traced a finger along Etta’s arm. “Should we join them?”
She shook her head. “I don’t dance.”
“Come on, it’ll be fun.” He extended his hand to her. “You need to let loose once in a while.”
“Oh, all right.” She allowed him to pull her up.
His grip tightened around her fingers as he escorted her to the dance floor. Brooke was teaching Matthieu a rousing line dance while the band played a fast song. She waved them over. “Come on, I’ll show it to you guys.”
After several tries, Etta got the hang of it—clap, hop, repeat in another direction.
Next, the band slowed into Bobby Darrin’s classic “Beyond the Sea.”
“I need some water,” Brooke gasped. “All this dancing makes me thirsty.”
Matthieu motioned to the table. “Sit down. I’ll grab glasses.”
Terrence nudged Etta’s arm. “It’s stifling here. Let’s find a less crowded place.” They strolled away toward the beach. Despite the dark night, the sound of the surf crashing on the sand reminded her of the nearness of the ocean.
Terrence turned her to face him. “Wanna dance again?” He slipped his arms around her back.
Words failed her. She nodded, and her hands found their way to the nape of his neck. In his arms, she swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the music and the waves. The peaceful sound of the ocean rang in Etta’s ears as she leaned her head against Terrence’s cheek. His heartbeat thumped against her chest. He squeezed tighter, expelling the air from her lungs. One hand cradled her neck, and the other pressed tightly against her spine. A moment later, his lips brushed against hers. All fear receded as if with the tide. She surrendered to his kiss. His fingers stroked her hair. He kissed her deeper, as if to explore the depths of the ocean. He wasn’t a French horn player for nothing.
The fireworks exploding inside her mirrored those bursting over the water that same moment to the fanfare of the brass band. Balls of fire painted the sky in brilliant shades of silver and gold.
When they pulled apart, a sheepish smile graced his features. “Ready for your first swim lesson?”
She gasped. “Now?”
“Sure. Nothing beats a night swim.”
“All right.” She succumbed as he pulled her toward the water. “Just don’t lose your contacts.”
“Believe me, I’m never going to lose my sight again.” He squeezed her tight as they fell together into the waves.