The rank smell of body odor and musty wood filled Vince’s nostrils as he lowered the viola to his side. A glance at his watch showed 7:45 p.m. He’d been practicing for two hours already, and for what? A botched version of this orchestral excerpt. Yep, pretty sure it sounded worse than before. The bare white walls of the practice room seemed to close in around him. Time for a couple minutes of break from this musical jail cell.
After he laid the instrument in its case, Vince yanked open the door. Why was the building so empty? Students practiced until at least ten most nights. As he meandered down the hallway to the vending machine, a few trombone blasts accosted his ears. So, Vince wasn’t the only one practicing tonight after all.
He inserted a couple of bills and selected a candy bar and a bag of chips.
“Not much of a dinner on Valentine’s Day, is it?”
Vince spun around and found himself face-to-face with Tristan, trombone in hand.
“Hello,” Vince muttered.
Tristan grunted. “You planning on splitting the candy bar with someone? Pretty cheap date, I’d say.”
Vince shrugged. “I don’t see you here with anyone.”
“I have reservations for 8:30.” Tristan fingered the valves of the trombone as if trying to eek out a few more moments of practice. “At Lucianos on Main Street. They were booked solid until then.”
“I’d better get going.” Tristan clapped his hand on Vince’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t want to keep my date waiting. I’ll let you get back to your date with Viola.” He snickered.
Anger bubbled up inside Vince. “Based on the shrieking noises blasting from your practice room, I’d say you need a date with your instrument, too.”
Tristan scowled before he stomped off.
Vince creaked open the door to his practice room, his insides churning. It was Valentine’s Day, the reason for the nearly empty building. How did everyone manage to find a date except him? Even Tristan. A glance at the excerpt on the music stand almost made him gag on his candy bar. He couldn’t look at that passage anymore tonight. But where could he go? All the restaurants would be booked with lovey-dovey couples. No use even trying one of those. Maybe the coffee shop would still have a few seats available. At least there he could bury his head in a book and avoid attracting attention to his lonely state. Yes, that would be best.
Bells jingled as Gaby pulled open the door to Café Chocolat. She propped it open with her foot and maneuvered her guitar case through the entrance as the sweet smell of coffee and chocolate greeted her senses. Her stomach rumbled. Maybe she should’ve eaten dinner before coming. But she was scheduled to play in fifteen minutes. No time for food now. Besides, the line for coffee and pastries nearly reached the door. Apparently every couple at Belton University had chosen this place to spend Valentine’s Day. Ugh. Worst holiday of the year. Why did society have to highlight all the happy couples in the world? This day made singles stand out like a harpist in a rock band.
Gaby pushed several heart decorations dangling from the ceiling out of her face as she made her way to the wall behind the stage. The guy at the mic, in a light pink button-down shirt and khaki pants, crooned love songs.
Her own tattered jeans and black T-shirt didn’t exactly scream Valentine’s Day. She squatted, set her guitar case on the floor, and clicked open the latches. Hopefully the strings hadn’t slipped too much with the February cold.
A few minutes later, prep boy finished, and the crowd erupted with applause. A wide grin spread across his face as he took a bow.
“Encore,” a girl at the front table shouted.
“I’d love to, but I’ve gotta make room for the next act.” He gestured for Gaby to take the stage.
She lowered herself onto the stool in front of the mic, then propped her guitar on her thigh. The strings rang out as she tuned all six to their proper pitches. Bells jingled as the entrance door opened, and a tall guy stepped inside with a bulky case. Definitely not a guitar but too big to be a mandolin or ukulele. What was it?
Vince’s ears perked up as the strains of acoustic guitar filled the room. A girl with shaggy, brunette hair sat perched on a wooden stool, hunched over the instrument. Her dark attire stood in stark contrast to the bright reds and pinks worn by most of the other coffeehouse patrons. A tattoo of music notes on a staff swiveled all the way up her right arm.
After several moments of meticulous tuning, the girl leaned into the mic.
“Hi, I’m Gaby, and I’m going to play a few originals tonight. This first one is called ‘Lizards in the Land.’”
Hmm. Should be interesting. Not at all what he’d expected for a Valentine’s Day concert. He liked this girl more and more every minute.
Her tattooed arm dropped to strum several loud chords, then her edgy voice knocked him back a few steps. Several girls in front covered their ears. A couple at a high top in the back stood to leave. Fortuitous, since Vince hadn’t spotted any other open seats. He set his viola case on the floor at his feet and sat at the now-vacated table. Elbows propped and chin in his hands, he listened, mesmerized. Her sound was unlike anything he’d ever heard at the music school. True, her voice lacked classical training and finesse, but her breath-support was incredible, and her intonation spot-on.
After the conclusion of “Lizards of the Land” several couples stood up to leave. Gaby’s heart sank when the same thing happened after the next couple of songs. What if the whole cafe cleared out during her set? They’d never let her play here again. She should’ve known that a Frenchy place like Café Chocolat wasn’t the venue for her alternative style.
“I’ve got one more number for you guys, then I’ll leave you to your dates and coffee. This next song is “‘Artists’ Escape’.”
“Wish I could make my escape,” a guy said from a table to the left. His date held a mug to her lips and giggled.
Tears threatened to spill down Gaby’s cheeks. Why’d she let these guys get to her? She’d never allowed other people’s opinions to affect her before. Her pride rested in her independence and originality— not in popular appeal. Still, it’d be nice if someone liked her music.
She finished up the last few chords, then stood up. “That’s it for me tonight.”
“Thank goodness,” a girl in a fuchsia sweater muttered.
Head down, Gaby returned to her guitar case. What a disastrous night.
“What?” She looked up to see the guy with the weird instrument standing over her.
He leaned his free arm against the wall. “I said nice job.”
She turned back to her case and latched it shut. “No need to lie. I know everyone hated it.”
“Look.” She grabbed her instrument case and stood. “I’m not in the mood for flirting, flattery, or whatever.”
His brow furrowed. “I… uh …wasn’t trying to do either. I don’t believe in flattery, and I’ve never been a good flirt.”
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Was this guy a joke?
“Look, I legitimately liked your songs. I’ve played music my whole life, and I’ve never heard a sound like yours. So authentic and hard core.”
The knot in Gaby’s stomach loosened. “Okay. I’ll pretend to believe you. What instrument is that anyway?” She pointed to the case strapped to his back.
“Oh this?” He slung it forward. “Guess.”
“Hmm.” Her eyebrows knitted as she squinted to examine it. “Violin?”
“What’s the difference?”
“They’re similar, but the viola is bigger and plays lower notes than the violin.”
“I’ve never seen one before.”
“I’m not surprised.” He laughed. “A lot of people haven’t. Want to hear it? We could have a jam session.”
She frowned. Was he hitting on her?
“Not a date, if that’s why you’re worried.” He stepped back a few paces. “No strings attached. I promise.”
A laugh escaped her lips. Not a bad line from a fellow string player. “Sure, why not? I’m Gaby, by the way.”
“Vince.” He grinned.
Vince’s palms started to sweat. Had this girl just said yes to his non-date? He couldn’t remember the last time a girl had agreed to do anything with him that wasn’t a class requirement.
“Where do you want to go? The next act is about to start.” Gaby pointed to the jazz trio setting up on stage.
Think fast. What would be open now? Nothing outside—too cold. No way would he invite a girl back to his dorm room. It was a mess and smelled like his roommate’s leftover pizza from a few days ago. “How about the music school?”
“Sounds cool,” she nodded. “I’ve never been there before.”
“Most people haven’t. We music majors are an insular breed.”
She laughed again. “And you’re going to let a non-music major into your secret club?”
Her laugh caused his insides to flip. What had gotten into him?
“You might not be so excited when we get to the practice rooms. They look like jail cells.”
Her free hand flew to her hip. “You’re telling me I’m headed to some creepy room in a building I’ve never entered with a guy I’ve never met before?”
He gulped. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
She swatted him playfully on the arm. “Just messing with you. Let’s go.”
Gaby let out a breath as she pulled up to the old-fashioned brick building. She’d passed it every day on her way to the psychology department but had never set foot inside. She’d figured it was full of stodgy, uptight, classical musicians. Was she crazy to meet Vince here? She pulled into an empty parking spot, then shot a text to her roommate. “At the music school with a new guy.” Best to let someone else know her whereabouts, to be safe.
Vince drove up beside her and climbed out of his car. “Hey.”
“Hi.” She grabbed her guitar from the back seat and moved next to him. “This building looks like a time capsule from the 19th-century.”
He chuckled. “That’s probably because it is. I don’t think they’ve renovated it much since then. The big bucks go to the science building.”
“That’s for sure.” She glanced at the impressive, modern edifice across the bridge, gleaming with light.
Once Inside, the two climbed up a flight of winding stairs, then stepped into a large hallway lined with multiple metal doors.
She frowned. “You weren’t kidding about the jail cell thing.”
“Nope.” He glanced around. “There aren’t nearly as many people here tonight as usual since they’re on dates for Valentine’s Day. We could probably avoid the practice rooms and jam here if you prefer.” He pointed to a couple of lumpy green couches at the entrance to the hallway.
“Sure.” Thoughtful. He didn’t want to shove her into a tiny space with him. She squatted down to pull out her guitar while he retrieved his viola. “So, what do you wanna play?”
“Lizards in the Land, of course.” His green eyes twinkled.
“How do you know the notes? You’ve only heard it once in your life.”
He leaned back against the sofa, stretching his long legs in front of him. “I started to play music when I was three using an auditory-first method. I didn’t read notes until years later. So I can play by ear.”
“You’ll play what I sing?” This was incredulous.
“No, I’ll improvise.”
How in the world could this guy make up something for a song she’d written only a week ago?
“All right.” She shifted on the couch. “Might as well give it a go.”
She strummed a few chords, waiting for his entrance. Did he even know what key she was playing? Sure enough, just in time for the vocals, he entered in perfect pitch with a low G. He held it for several bars, then moved to D, and back to G. Whoa. Not what she expected. This guy wasn’t half bad.
At the start of the second verse, his fingers quickened as he played several faster notes. What an incredible skill, to come up with all this in the moment. She’d spent hours perfecting this song. When the chorus returned, his eyes met hers. Heat spread to her cheeks as his gaze fell to her mouth. Did he want to kiss her? She didn’t even know the guy. But a little part of her wished he would.
His bow moved in perfect unison with the lyrics, but the rich tone of the notes he played was much lower—deeper, like dark chocolate. The two parts blended in perfect harmony.
The song drew to a close, but she couldn’t take her eyes off his. “That was incredible,” she blurted. “I’ve never heard anyone jump in like that before, especially not for one of my songs.”
“You’re brilliant.” He beamed as he lowered the viola to his side. “Your lyrics are original, not like the sappy stuff you hear on pop radio.”
Finally, someone who understood her.
“You should perform again. When’s your next gig?”
Her gaze fell to her shoes. “No idea. I doubt Café Chocolat will have me back anytime soon. I cleared out the place. The moment they see my name, they’ll nix my slot.”
“Don’t write your name. What if we signed up together?”
“No. Like a band name.”
“Still, they’d all leave again.”
“Not if I bring my friends. They’d love you.” His face turned red. “They’re all gamers who don’t get out much and would totally dig your style.”
“Do you really think so?”
His lips curved up. “Positive.”
“What should we pick for our band name.”
“How about No Strings Attached?”
Genius. “Perfect for a string duo.” She tapped her guitar case.
“Awesome, I’ll sign up for next week.”
She planted a kiss on his cheek. “Great. It’s a date.”