A/N: I started working on this piece while the second season of Glee was on, when it wasn't yet known Shelby would be coming back. Since the third season has only just started and I'm avoiding spoilers, I don't know what the writers have in store for her, and so I tried to remain vague about the storyline as presented to us in season 3. Just think about this oneshot is an AU based on what is known about Shelby in the first season. Reviews are always welcome, hint hint!
She couldn't help but smile wistfully as she pulled into a vacant space at the far end of the parking lot. How was it that high-school buildings had always looked exactly the same, regardless of time or location? The building was fully lit and a sign above the main entrance announced tonight's assembly and welcomed its newcomers, potential new students for the upcoming year. It was inconceivable that her Beth was to be one of them.
She stole a glimpse at her daughter, who was checking her reflection in a small mirror and fixing her lip gloss with gentle taps of her pinkie. She recognized that critical poise, the tiniest frown of the brow, the narrowing eyes, ready to spot any discrepancy. Beth had picked that habit from her. Her daughter seemed calm enough, but she knew that in that aspect they were similar as well. They weren't ones to display emotions, to wear them on their sleeve for the world to see. She could only imagine how her daughter must be feeling this evening. Moving into high-school was a big deal. She couldn't believe it was almost time for that.
"Are you ready to go?" she asked, sending the stressful thoughts of aging away.
"Yeah," said Beth, in perfect synch with her cell phone that went off with an unfamiliar melody, announcing a new text message. She watched her daughter pulling it out of her purse, reading the message and replying, all in a record time of no more than twenty seconds. She shook her head. Kids mustered such skills these days.
"It's Anna," Beth informed her. "She's waiting for us up front with her mom." Her voice faltered a little towards the end, turning from expectant to hesitant. She let her gaze wander down, as if to check her shoes.
Beth knew how she had felt about Anna's mother, or more correctly, how Anna's mother had felt about her. The woman was quite old fashioned in her opinions and didn't like the fact the identity of Beth's father had been unknown. Secretly, she was certain Anna's mother thought Beth was a result of some meaningless love affair. She was sure she'd learned the entire story (or as much of the story as had been known to Beth) from Anna, but it didn't stop her from shooting both of them nasty looks whenever they met. But then again, Beth had never surrounded herself with many friends, and Anna was her closest friend ever since they met in the book club at school a few years ago, and so she had made a decision to ignore Anna's mother the best she could, for her daughter's sake.
"You go ahead. I'll meet you by the auditorium," she said.
"Are you sure?" It touched her that despite her clear wish to belong, to be like other kids her age who had resented her parents, Beth seemed reluctant to leave her behind.
"Definitely. Go ahead. I'll save you a seat, so text me when you get to the auditorium."
Beth still seemed hesitant, but only for a second. "Okay," she said, and they both got out of the car. She thought her daughter looked very pretty, wearing a light green dress they had picked out especially for this evening, but knew better than saying it out loud. Like her, Beth had a hard time accepting compliments. She held her daughter's gaze for a moment before she nodded, and Beth hurried forward to meet up with her friend.
She stayed by the car for a long moment, watching her daughter as she found Anna at their designated meeting spot. Anna was standing there with a few other girls she vaguely knew from the neighborhood, and she watched in relief how Beth was laughing at something one of them had said. The girls' mothers seemed to know each other as well. They were the perfect reflection of their daughters in the way they chattered and gossiped, probably criticizing anyone who didn't belong in their group. They were the last of the group to enter into the building, slowly following their daughters inside. She could swear she could hear their loud giggles all the way across the lot.
She sighed, thinking of how ironic it was. All this time, she had been dreading Beth not being able to fit in a new school. Now it turned out her daughter was doing just fine. The outcast was her. It had always shocked her, in events such as this one, how parents had their own cliques, just like the kids. Most of them were younger than she was and had avoided her on a regular basis. At first she thought it was because she was a newcomer, a fresh face in this posh suburb in New Jersey, but as it continued throughout Beth's time in elementary school, she had come to realize there was more to it than that. It seemed the tradition was going to resume itself here, she thought grimly, as she slowly advanced towards the school. She didn't mind it… much. As long as Beth wasn't being picked on because of her, she had no problem being ignored. She had always been a kind of a loner, anyway.
It turned out Beth and her were rather early. The lecture at the auditorium was due to begin in a half hour or so, and she wasn't sure exactly what to do with herself now with Beth gone. The thought of coffee was uplifting at any time of the day, and so she followed the crowds to the refreshment stall and grabbed a cup, only to ditch it a moment later by a side table. It tasted like liquid mud.
For a while, she just wandered aimlessly along the decorated hallways, passing by small groups of parents and students. The sights of lockers and trophy cabinets all brought on vague memories of her days at Carmel High. She smiled somewhat sadly. At the same time she didn't miss that time in her life, she was longing for a chance to relive it, just for a little while.
It was no surprise for her that when she stopped walking, she found herself at the entrance of what looked like the music room. A dozen chairs rested in a semi circle in the middle of the deserted room. The walls were bare aside for a few posters of bands she didn't recognize. It was the massive piano which caught her eye. She stepped into the room somewhat hesitantly, feeling like a trespasser. Any moment now, the school principle would chase her there and kick her out. Parents were not supposed to step into the choir room, he would scold her as he'd march down the hallway with her on his heel. Beth would be humiliated, already the target of everyone's gossip and mockery. She would never speak to her again.
She didn't care.
The bench creaked a little as she took a seat and moved a little closer to the piano. It wasn't loud, but that side of the building was so quiet that the noise made her cringe. Still hesitant, she touched the keys with the tips of her fingers, not forcefully enough to produce any sound, just familiarizing herself with them. Her fingers lingered against the cold material in some sort of a frozen trance. When she moved here from Ohio, she was giving private singing lessons so that she could stay at home and tend her baby girl. She got her current job at the theatre when Beth got into elementary school, and she had barely played anything since then. She wasn't even sure she'd remember how to do it.
But it was one of those instinctive things that had sort of lingered at the back of your mind, like driving or riding a bike. As soon as she brewed enough courage to actually touch the keys, the music flowed effortlessly from her fingers. The piece she found herself playing had always been a favorite of hers, Lion Tamer by Stephen Schwartz. She's always found that song especially heartbreaking. The combination of lyrics and melody had never failed to stir something deep inside her. Even now, she couldn't help but hum the lyrics softly as she was playing.
I'd like to be a lion tamer,
Sequins and tights and silk top hats
I know I could be a lion tamer,
I've always gotten along with cats…
Her voice sounded so different to her; not off tune, thankfully, just out of practice. She didn't realize how much she'd missed it until that moment. Something like that had never happened to her in all her years of working at the theatre. She had never resented being stuck backstage when everyone around her were flushed with adrenaline and excitement, getting ready to go out there and perform. It was as though so far, a part of her had been numb, or had simply gone missing. While singing, she felt whole again.
Please let me be a lion tamer, if I could be a lion tamer,
Wouldn't he have to, finally, notice me?
She let her voice trail with the song's final line. Her fingers didn't leave the keys, though, and once the song ended, she plunged into a different tune, one which was unfamiliar to her. This one didn't have lyrics, she didn't think, the melody wrapped hauntingly around her. She missed this ability of losing herself in the music, until nothing else mattered. The world outside of the music room ceased to exist. She could barely recall where she was or why; she could barely recall her own name. Those mundane things were all meaningless. Just for this moment, the music was her entire world again.
She wasn't sure how, or when, reality had crept back in, but suddenly she was more aware of her surroundings, and especially of the fact that she wasn't alone anymore. She looked up at once. There was a shadow in the doorway.
Although assembly nights tended to turn the entire school into chaotic mess, it was quiet on that side of the building, so quiet he could hear himself breathing. Inhale, exhale, inhale again. It had been a while since he had done so without that overwhelming sense of guilt, searing through his chest. From time to time he still found himself focusing on the way he breathed, a test of sorts, to make sure he was really alone in his head. The guilt was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. Breathing had become normal again, a regular motion such as walking or talking, just something you did. The regularity in it felt almost foreign to him.
He wasn't hiding in his office; or at least, that was what he had told himself. His first year at this school was about to end, and he was still virtually a no one there, amongst teachers and students alike. Truth be told, he wasn't making any efforts to make contact with any of them, but that was absolutely fine, as far as he was concerned. His small office was located in a distance from the other teachers', the only spare room in the building, or at least, he was told so when he got there. It was no bigger than a janitor's closet, a haven of piling term papers and old librettos he hadn't leafed through in ages. No. There was no music in his life, hadn't been for years. Not since...
A bitter sound escaped him, a cross between a sigh and a moan. How very Captain Von Trapp of him, to think like that. He guessed old habit died hard. But he did feel as though that side of him was long gone, as though it died, just like...
He lifted his gold fountain pen in another futile attempt to get his scattered thoughts on track again. It was as though her eyes were staring back at him from the page, not in the listless way of those awful last moments, but the way he had forced himself to remember her, filled with life and vitality. There was this glimmer in them; liquid chocolate eyes, her eyes. He dropped his pen. It rolled noiselessly across his desk. Her stare seemed so real, so intense. He blinked, but it was still there. She had been with him wherever he went, but now her presence felt more potent than ever. He thought he was losing his mind. She could never carry a tune properly, but just for that moment, it almost sounded as if she was singing.
He blinked again, and the eyes were gone, but the music lingered, carried faintly in the air. He looked up when this fact occurred to him. Not in his head. Someone was playing.
He stood up as if it would sharpen his hearing, and leaned against the shut door of his office. The only piano on the premises was in the music room three doors down the hall. He had often found it ironic that his office was located in such close proximity to the music room while in his previous workplace he had to dash from one place to another in order to be there on time.
His previous workplace. He might as well say his previous life.
The music didn't cease. If he listened harder, he could almost hear a voice singing along. That was weird. No one had been into the music room aside for classes, and everyone would be at the reception now. Why would anyone sneak in there?
His hand was on the doorknob before he knew it. The door slid open at his touch, and he stepped into the hallway. The sounds were clearer here, but still soft, as if the person inside didn't wish to make their presence known. He recognized the tune now, a song by Stephan Schwartz he had always been fond of. She had been, too.
Was, he had to remind himself again. It awakened the deep pain in his chest.
He advanced down the hall, curious despite himself. He'd been so numb lately, trying to push out everything; music, art, life, everything but his work. But hearing this song... It was the one thing he couldn't stay immune to.
The door to the music room was partly open, and he pushed it gently as he stepped inside, holding his breath for a creaking sound that didn't come. The music wrapped around him like an embrace, welcoming him back. He tried to resist this overwhelming sense of homecoming that washed over him, but found himself unable to.
The room was swimming in shadows, but he could still make out the silhouette of woman by the piano. There was something mesmerizing about the way she was sitting there. Her eyes were shut with addiction or concentration. Her posture was very erect, giving the impression she belonged there on the bench by the piano, that it was her rightful place, and that she knew it damn well. She was radiating confidence, but at the same time there was this unmistaken vulnerability about her. He couldn't stop looking at her even if he tried.
It sort of surprised him that he didn't.
The song ended, but she didn't stop playing. He almost wanted to protest when she didn't accompany her playing with singing this time. He might have broken his own iron rule and joined in, but the tune she was now playing was unfamiliar to him. And as it turned out, it didn't matter. Before he could even try and recognize it, she turned abruptly and found him standing there.
At the sound of her gasp, somehow still audible to him from across the room, he did an instinctive step back. Her fingers landed on the keys in force that was almost brutal, producing a squeaking sound that broke the silence in the room. He had already regretted barging in on her. What was he thinking? "No – I'm sorry, go on, I didn't mean to…"
But she was already up on her feet, grabbing her bag from the top of the piano. "How long have you been standing there?" she stammered.
He watched her fumbling with her bag, sliding it on her shoulder, then removing it a moment later. The way she held it against her chest seemed defensive almost. Her eyes were wide, as though with fright. He was feeling worse by the second. "My office is down the hall. I heard the music, and..."
"I didn't mean to interrupt you. I didn't think there was anyone at that side of the building."
She was explaining herself, or apologizing; he wasn't sure which, because he was still trying to place her voice. It went beyond the softness that wrapped around each syllable as she spoke. There was something in the texture of her voice that struck him as familiar. "You didn't interrupt me. On the contrary, I… I should be the one apologizing. I'm sorry I scared you. I should have made my presence known."
"It's alright. I'd better go, actually, I should find my – "
She hurried passed him, and the faint light from the hallway fell on her face for a split second. It was all the time he needed for realization to finally dawn on him. "Shelby? Shelby Corcoran?"
She turned instantly, as one would do at the sound of one's name, and he knew he was right. And as soon as he had it confirmed, he couldn't understand how it hadn't dawned on him before. Of course it was her. In a tight fitting dark dress and heels so high they were probably a nightmare to walk in (and yet suited her just fine), she had hardly changed at all. He wasn't sure he could say the same about himself.
As though to prove his point, for a moment she just stared at him with this dumbstruck expression, as if she couldn't figure out how he would know her name. Then their eyes met, and a tiny smile found its way to her lips. "Will Schuester."
He wasn't sure why he was gawking at her that way, especially since he was the one who had recognized her first. She had always had that striking quality about her; he would always get somewhat star-struck when she was around. It had been about fifteen years since he had last seen her, and his knees still felt like rubber at the sight of her. Despite people's attempts to defy biology, age had interfered, sometimes cruelly so. In Shelby's case, the passing time seemed to treat her kindly. He was almost afraid to admit it, but he liked what he saw.
He managed to shake himself out of his trance and found her looking at him with this youthful glint in her eyes. "Oh, my God," he said, feeling his lips curl in response. It felt weird to be smiling again. He couldn't remember the last time he had smiled. "How are you doing? It's been a while. You're away from home, aren't you?"
"No, actually, I'm not. This is home; has been for a while." He must have looked confused, because a soft laugh escaped her as she shook her head. "I moved here when I left Ohio. My daughter might go to this school next year."
It was as though nothing existed but certain two words she had uttered. "Beth," he murmured, staring at her in awe. He couldn't make sense of his own reaction, wondered how come the thought of Beth didn't come to him as soon as he had recognized her mother. Maybe because she was just a baby the last time he had seen her.
Just a baby. Gosh. Time did fly.
"How is she? She'll be…"
"Fourteen in a few months," she smiled. There was pride in her eyes, but certain sadness as well, as if she, too, had just realized the enormous amount of time that had passed, that it wasn't stopping, that, like Beth, they were aging as well. There was a different sort of smile on her lips now, a sorrowful one, a perfect reflection of his own, as if the thought upset her, too.
"It's so amazing to meet you here." It was so painfully true. He felt as though he was slowly waking up from a long slumber. For so long, he had avoided people's company. He detested their hypocrisy and false intentions. They didn't really want to help him; they just wanted to feel good about themselves. For the longest time, he felt no one would understand what he was going through, and so at some point he had simply stopped trying. Even his therapist had given up on him along the way. And now, with the tiniest smile that still lingered in the corner of her lips, Shelby was the first person in years he was actually happy to contact. It felt so strange, to step back into the world of living.
"So are you teaching here now?"
"I started working here last year. I'm… I've recently left Lima too." Yeah, that was a safe way to put it. Not that it would last long. Already he could see a frown forming on her forehead. She was on to him, on to his pretense. He was well familiar with her sharp intuition. She would know something was wrong, she had probably guessed it already, but he didn't think he could handle the truth just yet. He could try and sidetrack her. "I am sorry I scared you, by the way."
Much to his surprise, it worked. She laughed sort of nervously. In the dim light from the hallway, it almost looked as though she was blushing. "I'm more embarrassed than scared, to be honest. It's been a while since I've played anything."
"Believe me, embarrassed is about the last thing you should feel." He wondered if the teasing note in the words was as prominent to her as it was to him. He was ashamed of it, either way. He could feel his cheeks flush, and turned away from her before she would notice. Where did that come from? He felt like taking the words back as soon as he had spoken them. But because that would be worse, he crossed the room towards the piano.
He had been teaching here for almost a year, and all that time, he hadn't been to the music room once. He couldn't bring himself to. But now the piano was right next to him, shining in the faint light, and he couldn't stop himself from brushing his fingers against its lacquered surface. His fingers moved hesitantly, longingly. He stole a glance at her, and caught her staring after him. He couldn't make sense of what he found in her eyes; he didn't think he had the strength to even try. He removed his hand and crossed his arms against his chest.
His abrupt motion seemed to snap her out of her silent pondering. She blinked, and then slowly came closer. The clicking sound of her heels still echoed in his ears as she stopped by the piano, next to him. "Are you coaching the school's Glee Club?"
Although the question was asked casually, he detected the change of her tone. It was a notch higher, almost as if she was uneasy. "Umm, no, I'm not." Until that moment, it was okay to say he didn't miss it. Now, he felt like he would be fooling no one, not her, and certainly not himself. "But Beth can join the choir. They're really good, and it's actually cool to be part of the Glee club in this school."
He chuckled at his own joke, but couldn't shake off the memories now, reminiscence of a better time, the best time of his life; a time that was long gone.
They stood there in silence for a moment, facing each other. Her eyes darted to the shiny black surface of the piano and on, and he realized his hand was resting against the keys. There was this tingling sensation at his fingertips, a desire to press against them and produce a sound, any sound, but he couldn't bring himself to.
Her next question made him forget all that.
"Are you married, Will?"
As always, the pain got him square in the chest, like a well-directed punch. He looked up at her and she let out a tiny gasp, looking as though he had slapped her. Funny, he thought; he had just felt as though it was her slapping him.
"I'm sorry, I didn't – "
"No. No, it's okay." It was okay, he reminded himself, breathing slowly through his nose. People would keep asking him that, as long as he insisted on keeping his wedding ring on. "I, umm… my wife passed away almost two years ago."
She felt like the world's biggest idiot. It felt as though she was staring at him for the longest time, so long it was almost embarrassing, and all the while she was kicking herself for not minding her own business. And she should have known better, really. Only a few moments ago, while trying to figure out why he was looking so gloomy and so down, she surmised he looked as if someone had died.
Only she had never meant it quite so literally.
"I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have – "
He let his eyes meet hers, and it was all there in his grief-stuck face. She wondered how she couldn't see it before. It was so painfully obvious. "It's fine, really. You couldn't know."
"Have you been married for long?"
"For ten years or so. Then about three years ago, Emma got sick and… well, you know how it usually ends."
There was an Emma in Will's life when she had last seen him. She could almost picture her now, a cute redhead with doe eyes and a Brady Bunch attire. She wondered if it was her, if Will ended up marrying her, but didn't dare asking him that. He looked so broken. More than anything, she wanted to be there for him, to comfort him. His wife's death had clearly left a deep wound, crashed his spirit. He looked like a completely different person. For the first time in a very long time, she was left speechless. She had no idea what to say to him.
"You don't have to say anything," he said, as if he had somehow had access to her mind. "It's just hard to let go sometimes. I've got it under control."
Did he? She seriously doubted it. Even though she had still found him attractive, something she couldn't stop thinking about since she had recognized him, it was easy to tell he was a complete mess behind his good looks. "Is that why you left Ohio?"
"Eventually, yes. Staying there became too much. Everything reminded me of her. At some point it felt as if everything was moving on and I was stuck. I needed to start over. I knew she would want me to."
"Why New Jersey?"
He smiled bitterly. "I don't know if you noticed, but I'm in a pretty bad shape still. New York is still my dream, but I don't think I'm ready for it just yet."
"You'll get there," she said softly, taking a step closer; "You're more than halfway there." She offered him a careful smile. "And now that I know you're here, I'll be around to whip you into shape."
He laughed once, humorlessly. "I'm afraid it would take much more than that, Shelby."
"I'm a patient girl."
"Oh, really? Since when?"
"Since I've become a mother." His expression darkened for a split second; she felt she had said the wrong thing again. It also answered her question without having to ask it. Now she only wondered how come he and Emma didn't have any kids."Seriously though," she continued, now desperate to change the subject. "We'll fix you up, don't worry. Remember who gave you advice the last time you were messed up."
The tiniest smile lit his eyes again. For a moment, he looked like the Will she remembered, filled with vigor and never-ending charm. "Is Beth in touch with her biological parents?"
"Noah checks in from time to time. He sends her a gift for Christmas every year, and on her birthday. Quinn…" She sighed. It wasn't her favorite topic. "It's a bit trickier there, but I completely understand why she would want to keep away. Maybe in a few years…"
"Maybe it's for the best," he said, and she found reassurance in the confidence in his voice. She nodded, and something else occurred to her.
"I do see Rachel from time to time." He blinked, as if he wasn't expecting her to say it. She laughed softly. "Yeah. She lives in New York now. I contacted her when we moved here. I wasn't sure if she would want anything to do with me after... well, you know. People change, I guess."
"Yeah, they do," he whispered.
The sense of loss in his eyes was overwhelming. Before she could think better of it, she took his hand. His eyes widened for a split second, but he didn't try to pull back. Slowly, his hand eased into her grasp, its warmth sipping through, warming her own hand. "It's going to be okay, you know," she told him, her voice as low as his. "You will get better. I won't let you lose yourself again."
Her own words caught her off guard. She wasn't sure where all that determination was coming from, when she had only just met him again a few minutes ago, but suddenly there was nothing she wanted more than help him get through this.
Only then she had become aware of their close proximity. Their hands were still joined. She could almost feel his warm breath against her skin. One more step, just one more step, and she could…
No. She couldn't think that. Not when he was still hurting over the death of his wife. But she found herself unable to step back or walk away. She was such a horrible person, she told herself, but self-reproach didn't help. There was an intensity of sorts building up in the small space between them. It was the craziest thing, but the most natural thing at the same time. She seemed unable to resist it; she didn't want to resist it, either. Because if he wanted her to stop holding his hand, he would have let go by now, wouldn't he?
Before she could register what she was doing, she stepped even closer. Or maybe he did? She wasn't sure anymore. But when a second later their lips touched in the briefest of kisses, it didn't feel wrong or twisted. It felt just right.
He couldn't believe he was doing this. One moment he was mourning Emma, and in the next he was kissing a stranger. Only she wasn't a stranger, and this didn't feel like some colossal mistake. Not like that odd night in his apartment all those years back. As their kiss deepened, he slowly let go of her hand and wrapped his arms around her. He had almost expected her to shove him off her, but she didn't. Instead, she clawed at his dress shirt to pull him closer, closer with each frenzied kiss.
For a moment, there was no sound in the dark music room, apart for whispery kisses, their ragged breathing, the deafening doubts in his head, and then another sound tore into the silence, one that finally made them break apart abruptly.
"My phone," she breathed, reaching out for the bag on the piano. Funny, he didn't even remember she had placed it back there. She turned her back at him as she searched for the phone in her bag. He used the moment to get his breathing under control, as well as his mind and, well, other parts. He felt dizzy. He knew he should say something, that he had no idea what had come over him, but he couldn't bring himself to apologize. Not when he was craving more, so much more.
"It's Beth." The sound of her voice put an end to his turbulent thoughts. He blinked, and realized she was facing him again. Even in the dimness of the room, her cheeks were flushed, her lips a little swollen. He couldn't help the smile that curled on his lips. It wasn't like her to look so unkempt. He kind of liked it. "I have to go. The assembly is about to begin."
He had forgotten all about it. For the past ten minutes or so, it felt as though the two of them were the only two people around. It was silly to be disappointed now, while being reminded that wasn't the case. He nodded. "Don't keep her waiting."
"Do you… want to come with me?"
She seemed to be struggling to form the question. She peeked at him through her lashes, looking hesitant, as if she knew he would refuse. "I'd better not," he said. He was curious to see Beth, to try and find either Puck or Quinn in her eyes, her coloring, her behavior, but he'd had enough revelations for one day. He felt drained. Maybe it meant he would finally be able to sleep that night.
He stole a glance at her and knew he was kidding himself. Sleep. Right.
She stepped closer again. Leaning forward to kiss her was almost an instinct to him now. She kissed him back for a moment, and then pulled away breathlessly. "Maybe we should talk about this."
But what could he tell her that wouldn't sound profound or melodramatic? That for the first time in years, someone had managed to stir a different emotion within him, which wasn't grief or sorrow? That for the first time he had actually felt there was something worth living for? It was just a kiss, after all, but it presented him with a possibility, one that wasn't there the day before, not even an hour before. When he lost Emma, he felt as if a part of him had gone with her. And now, Shelby felt like a missing piece. Not one that would replace Emma, never that, but she could help him put himself together. She already had. He could almost feel it now, this renewed vitality pumping through his veins, getting stronger every second. He looked up at her in awe. The confusion in her eyes implied she was still waiting for his answer, but he couldn't say anything. He didn't want to talk about it. He just wanted to let things happen.
Slowly, he brought his hand to cup her cheek. She let her face rest against his palm, almost despite herself, it seemed. She was trying to maintain this no-nonsense exterior, but he could see right through it. She wasn't the only one who was intuitive. She looked as vulnerable as she had when he watched her play earlier. It was strange to see her so insecure.
"There's nothing to talk about," he said.
"If this is too soon – "
"We'll take things slow." He felt as if he could have an answer to any sort of resistance she would offer. He felt like laughing aloud, which in itself was strange to him.
Her fingers wrapped around his wrist as she slowly removed his hand from her face. She lowered their joined hands and looked up at him. "Slow," she echoed. There was uncertainty in her voice.
"Yes. As in, will you have lunch with me tomorrow?"
She laughed softly, and then shook her head. "I think it can be arranged."
"Great." He squeezed her hand, hating to be dismissing her when the last thing he wanted was her to go. "Beth's waiting for you."
"Yeah." She lingered for a moment, then dropped a kiss on his all too yielding lips. "It's good to see you." She laughed, as though she realized how silly and official that sounded. "What I meant was…" She let her voice trail, as if she couldn't find the words. To be honest, neither could he.
She let go of his hand, reluctantly, it seemed, and reached for her bag. Finding something inside an inner pocket, she now handed it to him. It was a business card with her name on it, a wordless invitation. He nodded and put it in his shirt's pocket.
"Bye," she whispered, turning to go.
"Shelby?" The name escaped his lips before he could stop himself. She turned to face him again, and the hesitant look on her face instantly reminded him of the song she sang earlier and the way her voice lingered on its final lines. "You don't have to be a lion tamer to be noticed. You've never had."
Misunderstanding crossed her expression, but only briefly, before she broke into a beautiful smile. She lowered her gaze bashfully. For a moment, it was easy to forget she was nearing fifty, and so was he. She didn't reply. She didn't look back as she walked passed him and out of the room. Only on the doorway she turned and met his gaze again, her eyes speaking volumes. Then, after a moment, she left.
He kept standing there for a minute or two, listening to the sound of her clanging heels, fading down the hallway. It felt strange to be alive again; he could barely remember what impatience felt like. He looked down at the piano and felt a certain longing, not hostility, when he let his finger brush against the keys. He couldn't play it just yet, but soon. He could feel it now, new hope blossoming in the place his heart used to be. Everything was going to be okay.
And so, with her business card placed safely in his pocket, its weightlessness reassuring just as much as the last smile she flashed at him, he left the music room and headed back to his office.