an excerpt

Chapter 1

Applause resounded through the concert hall. Over three thousand people stood in a demonstration of admiration and appreciation for what they'd just heard. His violin in hand, Las walked to the front of the stage. He raised his arms above his head, accepting the praise, then swept down in a low, graceful bow. A few strands of his dark blond hair fell free from his ponytail. Roses from the first row landed at his feet. Ignoring them, he straightened, smiled at the audience, and turned to leave the stage.

He hardly made it off stage before his way was blocked.

"And where do you think you're going?"

Las stared at his manager. If he'd somehow managed to miss the attitude in Kendra's voice, her stance more than made up for it. She stood with one hand on her hip, one eyebrow raised, all warning him to not go against her will.

Having been a team for the past five years, he knew Kendra wasn't exactly unfamiliar with his games, and he also knew no matter how much he pissed her off, she'd always be there for him.

Years ago, when everyone else overlooked her, he saw her brilliance. Many people didn't take her seriously back then because of her age, only a year out of Yale with a Masters of Fine Arts. Since she was an African-American woman, there was also a degree of discrimination among the upper echelon she was striving to break into.

One conversation with her told him she knew more about music than half the musicians he worked with, and when it came to the business side of things, he knew she had him beat. He'd snatched her up to be his manager/agent and it'd been one of the best decisions he'd made in his career, even when she had her "look" going on.

Las beckoned a stagehand to bring him the case for his violin. "Where am I going? To my dressing room. In case you missed it, the concert's over."

"I didn't miss a single note during the entire performance, especially since it's not over yet. The crowd wants more."

"They always do."

"And that's a good thing, so get your butt back out there and do another encore."

"I've done one already. If I left it to the masses, they'd have me play my fingers bloody."

With the stagehand holding the case open and steady for him, Las gently laid his violin inside. He rested a hand on the body of it, gazing down at its rich brown finish, its voice so clear, so beautiful, still echoing through his mind. It never really left him. Even at night, he could hear the instrument whispering to him in his dreams, speaking of all the songs they'd played, all the ones they still had to bring to life.

Crafted by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, also known as Joseph Guarneri del Gesu; it was one of the rarest and finest of violins. Able to rival Stradivari violins in perfection of sound; when he first heard his "del Gesu" sing ten years ago, its voice sensual and strong, he knew he'd found his instrumental other half.

Kendra shook her head at him. "You know what you need? A man who you can look at with as much love as you do when looking at Angelo."

A slow grin spread over Las's lips. He moved his gaze from his violin, his dear Angelo, to Kendra. "If only I could find a man as beautiful. But what's that got to do with doing another encore?"

"Because maybe then you'd understand your gift better."

Las stood silent, his gaze on her. If she was any more ambiguous, she'd be speaking in tongues. Out the corner of his eye, he caught movement rushing toward them and turned to see the theatre manager.

"Ms. Miller, Mr. Lamont, is everything all right?"

Las gave the guy a smile, noticing how winded he was, either from his haste in getting to them, or from nerves that the show had ended with the audience still wanting more. "Everything is fine, sir. The show is over, that's all."

Kendra spun toward the manager, flashing a glowing smile. "I'm afraid Mr. Lamont is feeling a bit fatigued after this one encore. It's been such a long tour. His stamina is fairly well spent."

Las glared at her. A low blow, but effective. Lifting Angelo from the case, he turned for the stage again.

"Las, honey, wherever are you going?"

Las heard the mocking triumph in Kendra's voice. Knowing she couldn't see, he let a smirk slide over his lips. "To play another encore, of course. Any requests?"

"Play whatever you like."

From behind, he caught her saying to the manager, "He's the epitome of a professional, pushing through his fatigue even when exhausted."

He snorted. And she was the epitome of the artful business woman, ensuring future bookings at the Chicago Theatre wouldn't be a problem.

The applause hadn't stopped since he'd left the stage with people trying to call him back out, but it'd weakened as some gave up hope of him returning. As he crossed the stage in long, confident strides, the crowd erupted. He stood front and center, put a finger to his lips to signal for quiet, then waved one hand in a downward motion to further stress he wanted to speak. The crowd settled, and he cleared his throat for his voice to carry.

"You're all so gracious to let me take some more of your time this evening. Let's say we kick things up a notch."

Applause answered him.

Las shook out a white cloth and laid it over the base of the violin as he tucked it to his shoulder. He flexed his fingers and struck the bow across the strings. Six notes into Queen's "We Will Rock You", and the audience cheered, settling almost as quickly so as to hear the song. The orchestra easily picked up with him, backing his leading violin.

It wasn't uncommon for him to play rock and pop songs at his concerts. In fact, it was something of his trademark. His fans seemed to enjoy it, most probably thinking it was all in good fun. But for him, it was more. The driving beats, the energy, it all called to him. It wasn't that he didn't love classical music. He did, very much. But sometimes he felt he needed to play something different to try and...feel again.

Las brought "We Will Rock You" to a close, melding it seamlessly into "We Are The Champions." He closed his eyes, listening to Angelo's voice. He swore he could hear the instrument smiling in the notes. It had existed for almost three hundred years. He couldn't even begin to fathom all the songs it'd known in its life, but he was certain it'd never known any like what it sang now until it'd gotten into his hands.

As he neared the end of the song, he paused before moving into his final piece. Deciding to play with his audience and Kendra further, he thought he'd end the show with Paganini's Caprice No. 5. He was known not only for throwing contemporary works into his performances, but also for his speed and accuracy in playing. As a solo work for violin, the rest of the orchestra was silenced. It seemed not one among the listeners dared breathe for fear of missing a single movement as his fingers flew on the violin's neck.

As he brought it to an end, the last note lingered over the audience. Silence settled for an instant before the crowd took to its feet once again, erupting with applause. Las repeated his bow from earlier and took his leave, determined to not return again.

A small smile on her lips, Kendra said, "Well, I should've expected that."

His violin cased, Las pulled it from the stagehand and started toward his dressing room. "Yes, you should have. And you owe me one."

Kendra caught up to his side. "I don't owe you anything except what I already give you, kicking your butt."

Las laughed softly. "When you put it like that, not even I can argue."

"For once," Kendra mumbled.

Las gave her a light shove, making her laugh. He stopped outside his dressing room and turned to her. "I think I'm going to stay in Chicago for a few more days. Do you mind flying back to New York by yourself?"

"No, I don't, but this is a surprise. When did you decide this?"

"While I was on stage."

Kendra snorted. "Figures. And your reason for staying would be..."

"I'd like to visit an old friend."

"Can I ask who this friend is?"

"You can, but I don't see why it'd be important to you."

"Because it's my job to always make sure you're safe and taken care of, which includes knowing who you're hanging around with."

A wicked grin on his face, Las leaned closer to her, his voice hushing. "There are plenty of times you don't want to know who I'm hanging around with."

Kendra locked her gaze with his. "If you're referring to your man flings, it's not that I don't want to know who you're with, it's more I don't think even you know who you're with half the time. There's something to be said for romance, you know."

"That's the problem with romance, all that's said during it. It's just talking, talking, talking, and nothing but a delay in getting to the point where everyone wants to be-the fucking."

Kendra shook her head at him. "Just tell me who you're going to visit."

"Julian Forrester."

Kendra's eyes widened. "The pianist and keyboardist for the rock band, Conquest? Hasn't it been a while since you saw him?"

Las nodded. "We've talked off and on after Juilliard, but lost touch not long before he joined Conquest. I was able to track him down and he lives here now. The band's getting ready for the European leg of their tour, but they're taking a couple weeks of downtime before heading over there."

"Well, good. Maybe he can tell you the rock star life isn't as wonderful as you seem to believe it is."

Las smiled. "We'll see." He opened his dressing room door. "Have a safe trip back home. Call me when you get in."

Kendra wrapped her arms around him. "I will. And you call me if you need anything, or if any fool ideas pop up in your head."

"Now when do I ever have fool ideas?"

"Don't make me answer that. We'll be here all night." She paused, seeming hesitant to leave, then with a resigned sigh, she turned and began walking away. "Just be careful, Nicholas."

Her using his full given name proved to him how deep her concern was, though since he knew it was unfounded, it didn't affect him. "I always am, dear."

Las stepped inside his dressing room, locking the door behind him. He placed Angelo's case on a plush chair, and moved toward the vanity, unbuttoning his black tuxedo jacket on the way. Shrugging out of it, he tossed it over the back of another chair before sitting at the large mirror. He took one end of his bowtie and pulled it loose, letting the black silk hang down on his white dress shirt. Reaching up, he unfastened the shirt buttons at his throat to the top of his chest.

Las sagged back in the chair, a fatigued sigh leaving him. He contemplated himself in the mirror, gazing into his own light brown eyes. Two black diamond earrings adorned his left ear. Through the thin material of his shirt, he could make out the tattoo of a violin and bow entwined with a vine of red roses on his right bicep. The outline of the ring in his left nipple was also visible.

He tugged his hair free of the ponytail, shaking his fingers through the burnished gold strands until it hung loose just above his shoulders. He glanced back at his image in the mirror, a tired smile rising to his lips. He certainly didn't match the mold for the typical classical artist.

Las closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

When had he lost it? His passion for playing. It had always thrived inside him, so much a part of him he didn't even realize it was there until one day, something happened; for the first time in his life, he didn't want to play. It was early in the morning, and as he'd gone through his usual after breakfast routine of practicing his music, all he felt was the desire to avoid it. He'd forced himself to play, believing he was probably just in a mood, but his playing was so listless, he stopped not long after starting.

He felt the same way for the rest of the week. He started to think he was just burned out, so he took time away from playing. But after a couple weeks, the fire, the passion, the excitement, the energy he felt every time he struck the bow over the strings still hadn't returned.

He continued to play concerts and recorded another album, and even though it seemed fans and critics didn't notice the difference, to him it was so clear it made him feel sick at times. His music had become lifeless. He believed the only thing that saved him was Angelo. The violin's voice was so beautiful, no one could hear his lackluster playing through it.

It used to be every song could make his heart race with excitement, clench with sadness, rejoice in happiness. Whatever emotion a piece called for, he could always feel it. Now he wondered if he would ever feel that way again. And he needed to feel it. Only, he was at a loss at how to recapture it.

He had one idea left, and if it didn't work, that only left him one option-to walk away from music for good.