This chapter reverts to Leila’s perspective, but you will hear from Stefan again in future chapters.
I can’t even begin to explain how self-conscious I felt that evening. I’d never worn anything this fancy before– not even the time we borrowed garb to wear to the Renaissance Festival. I was scarcely a fancy peasant that day compared to how this dress made me feel. It was like getting ready to go to an elite ball, where barons and earls would be watching, or maybe an awards ceremony. Even if my company wanted to give an award for top writer, this dress would have been too much.
But it was all worth it to see the look on Stefan’s face when he saw me in it. I’m shaking just admitting that. His expression was better than when Prince Charming saw Cinderella. He really did look weak in the knees; I wouldn’t have minded helping him sit down, though. I’m not saying I bought the dress just for him to see me in, because I love it, too. I’m just glad that he agrees. He has great taste, and he’s really intelligent, so I trust his opinions.
When we arrived at the main floor of the hotel, I did my best to ignore the other people passing through. I may appreciate compliments from my friends, but I still get a little self-conscious when strangers pay attention to me. Everybody was dressed to the nines– and I almost took myself onto a tangent wondering whether Larsa knew that phrase– and I was a little nervous about catching more glances than the other women nearby.
It’s easy to tell who’s on their way to perform in the orchestra versus view it– especially the ladies. Unless they choose to dress similarly to the gentlemen, they have to wear a black dress, and it was to be simpler than what I had on, so even a black version of my gown wouldn’t do. The women watching the performance had a few more options when it came to color, so long as it wasn’t ostentatious. I was one of the few in the lobby not in black.
“Killian, Stefan is here!” I heard Larsa call out excitedly as we stepped off the elevator. “But wh– oh wow, Killian– Leila… Wow!”
“That’s about as close as you come to speechless, isn’t it?” Stefan teased him. “And yes, it’s Leila.”
Larsa looked me up and down, grinning like an excited puppy. “You look so beautiful!”
“Thanks,” I whispered. I don’t know why I was acting so shy all of a sudden.
“Larsa,” Stefan said in a tone of mock reprimand, “now is the part where you trip over yourself to say that she’s always beautiful.”
“You’re right,” Larsa said, “she is! But you already told her that, didn’t you?”
I looked up and caught Stefan’s look of mixed sheepishness and bashfulness. He cleared his throat. “You’re going to say I look beautiful, too, right?” he teased, pretending to be offended.
Larsa sputtered, but Killian came to his rescue. “Are ye teasin’ my sweet lad,” he asked, “or jus’ tryin’ tae make me jealous? I didnae peg ye fer the type tae flirt with family.”
“You didn’t p–” Stefan started off.
“Hey, you two,” I interrupted, patting Stefan on the back, “this would be a great time to behave yourselves.”
“There’s my strong-willed lass,” Killian said with a grin as he pulled me into his arms. “Ye look incredible. We all know how cute you are in pajamas and unbrushed hair, but this dress make ye look like the princess ye are deep down inside.”
“Queen,” Stefan corrected him.
“She’s so much more than a princess,” Stefan explained. “I’m sure you understand.”
Killian grinned at him, and then me. “Ye’ve got quite the fan club started here.”
“I’m a member, too!” Larsa declared. “I can help recruit more members, if you want.”
“Slow down there, Larsa,” I told him. “I’m enjoying my current fan club perfectly fine; we don’t need to add to it tonight.”
“But what if–”
“Anythin’ can happen,” Killian told him. “We know. Now can we take a picture together before Stefan and I rush off to Symphony Hall?”
We set up a couple of our phones on the nearby counter– away from any workers, of course– in camera mode, and took some group pictures. Then it was time to exchange hugs and go our slightly different routes. The musicians had to be there considerably early, but Larsa and I would be able to take our time getting to Symphony Hall.
I gave Killian a warm hug and wished him luck, and as soon as we parted, Stefan pulled me in close. He had a tight grip on me– not crushing, but I could tell he was full of intense emotions at that moment.
“You’re going to do great,” I reassured him.
“Now I have to,” he whispered, close to my ear. “It sounds like you’re counting on me.”
“I’d say everyone’s counting on each other.”
He hugged me tighter. “Thank you, Leila… Thank you for being here, and for helping me get ready… For not being mad…”
“Why would I be mad?” I asked him.
He chuckled a little, but I could tell he was nervous. “I’m going to play my best for you,” he whispered.
“You always do,” I replied, trying to return the embrace.
It took Killian reminding him of the time to get him to let go of me. I smiled up at him, and then he turned to Larsa.
“Try to take care of her as much as she takes care of you, okay?” Stefan said as he gave him a much lighter hug.
“I’ll be her knight in shining armor!” Larsa declared.
Stefan laughed a little. “I think if you go that far, Killian will end up jealous.”
“No, he understands,” Larsa replied. “We help you protect Le–“
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Stefan said. “But don’t think Killian won’t need you to save some of that attention for him.”
“I have plenty of attention for everyone,” Larsa insisted.
Stefan laughed again, and we started to get moving towards the parking lot. Killian took Stefan in his car, we waved them off, then walked further down to where my car was parked.
“I like your car,” Larsa said as he hopped in, practically bouncing in his seat. “Killian always needs help keeping his clean.”
“His is a lot better than some guys’ cars,” I pointed out as we headed towards the main road. “I had a boyfriend for a while who had a Volkswagen mini-bus, and it was terrible. Wrappers spilled out every time I opened the door.”
“That sounds like it didn’t last long,” Larsa said.
“Just a few months,” I replied. “He was nice, but I couldn’t see myself living with him.”
“Could you see yourself living with Stefan?”
I tried not to choke when I heard that question. “Is that what you want to play?” I teased. “First tell me this: do you think you’ll still be living with Killian two or three years from now?”
He thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he eventually admitted. “When I’m ready to graduate, I’m going back to Sápmi to help my community.”
“Killian knows that, right?”
“Of course he does. If we’re still together then, maybe he can come visit and see if he likes it.”
“Do you think you will be?
“I don’t know,” he admitted with a shrug. “I really like him, and he’s always really nice– to everyone, not just me. We’re mostly just enjoying being together right now; we’re getting to know each other over time, and we can save the big talks for later.”
“I see…” I was hoping he wouldn’t turn the question back to me.
“Yes?” I replied, keeping my eyes on the road.
“Do you want to have kids some day?
I didn’t know he had it in him to make me choke like that twice in one conversation. “I– Larsa, I really don’t know.”
“I do,” he said matter-of-factly. Did he really not notice how I’d reacted? “I’d have to adopt, of course, but I’d love to help someone grow up knowing they’re loved. A few someones, actually.”
Wow. Here he was, almost three years younger than us, and he knew he wanted to do this. Okay, I realize he might not know what he’s getting into, but more to my point is that he has this heart– he wants to share his love and joy with others. Talk about joie de vivre! I really admired that in him.
“That’s one of the sweetest things I’ve heard all day– maybe even all week,” I told him.
He grinned at me. “I mentioned it to Killian when we visited his mom’s house and I played with his brothers and sisters. He has so many of them!”
“It comes with being Irish,” I replied.
“That’s what he said!” Larsa laughed.
“Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“Oh, of course,” he said as the city passed by outside. “I have three big sisters and one little, tiny brother.”
“He’s the youngest, I take it?”
“He is! And he’s the best one; he’s always helping me.”
“I love hearing about siblings being so helpful,” I told him. “My brothers mostly just teased me.”
“But you got stronger from it, right?” he said. “You’re tough!”
“Look at you, all compliments,” I replied.
We approached the parking lot and pulled in. Once we found a parking space and got out, we decided to take a walk through the memorial garden just outside of Symphony Hall. We chatted more as we explored the area, and even took a few pictures among the trees and fountains.
Eventually, we headed inside. I swear, Larsa has some kind of homing beacon when it comes to cafés, because he found this one right away. We had time, though, so I couldn’t fault him for getting a snack. After that, we explored the lobby, taking in the ambiance, the art, and– or course– finding the gift shop. Larsa found several postcards that he was excited about mailing back home, which was actually really sweet; a lot of people just keep in touch electronically these days. He tucked them into an inner pocket in his suit– well, the suit he’d borrowed from Killian– and we went back to wandering the main hall.
It wasn’t too long before seating time that we found ourselves in line for one of the bars. We’d decided to get some Champagne before we sat down, mainly to relax a little, but also to celebrate the concert. I was looking over the menu when I heard a familiar voice.
“Ah, I daresay, is that you, Leila?” I knew that arrogant, holier-than-thou tone more than I liked to admit.
I considered ignoring him at first, but Larsa would have gotten my attention for him, and I didn’t have a way to warn him off, so I steeled myself for a conversation I didn’t really want to have. At least when it was our turn to order, I could try to make my exit. I turned slightly– and slowly– to my left, and saw the man I knew the voice belonged to.
“Good evening, Preston.” Kill them with kindness, the saying goes. I could act more civil than this self-centered man for a few minutes. “What a surprise to see you this far from Healy Heights.”
He smiled smugly. “I would be remiss if I didn’t take a little jaunt to Seattle so that my sweetheart could hear Edvard Grieg’s music brought to life. It seems that you’ve come with a certain someone special as well, Leila.”
I glanced between him and Larsa and smiled a bit. Then I took Larsa’s arm. “This is one of my close friends, actually. Larsa, this is Preston. Preston, Larsa.”
Preston looked him over as though trying to appraise him; I couldn’t stand that. Preston was the type of person who thought he was too good for Armani. Years ago, he’d criticized Stefan for having long hair and tattoos, even though minutes before he’d been praising the woodwind section of the orchestra. Now that I think of it, he was the opposite of Larsa in many ways; Larsa wanted to foster children, but Preston came off as the kind to barely lift a finger for his own flesh and blood, leave all the work to a nanny. I wonder how much the woman on his arm realized that.
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” Preston said. He didn’t offer a hand to Larsa, but patted his date’s. “And what about you, Leila? Do you live in the area now?”
“No,” I admitted. “We’re just in town for the orchestra.” I decided not to tell him that Stefan would be playing that night.
“How lovely,” the other woman said. “Are you staying at the Four Seasons as well? Their spa really is lovely.”
Of course they’d chosen the most expensive hotel in the city. I was searching for a way to avoid telling them where we were staying– and hoping Larsa wouldn’t chime in– when the man in line before us finished, and It was our turn to order.
“Please excuse us, Preston,” I rushed out, and turned to the bar to ask for our Champaign.
I was worried that it would be hard to make an escape, even after we’d ordered; could walking the other direction and putting the line between them and us actually work out? Then the most unexpected thing happened: the man who’d been in line in front of us started speaking to Preston.
“Well, if it isn’t the memorable Mister Preston Astor!” the stranger said. “I hope you won’t mind if I introduce myself to you; I have long wanted to make your most esteemed acquaintance.”
Somehow this guy understood that Preston’s ego wouldn’t allow him to tell him to get lost. The upper class was all about making connections, and this guy was so-well dressed that his long hair could be excused as just an eccentricity. Plus I swear I caught a glimpse of a knowing smile from this guy and– I don’t know how Preston didn’t see it– a slight, noble nod, like he knew I wanted to escape, and he was giving us this chance.
As soon as I’d paid and we had our drinks, I escorted Larsa off in the other direction, and we occupied ourselves in a small gallery as we sipped from the tall flutes.
“How does that man know you, Leila?” Larsa eventually asked.
I sighed a little. “Er… We dated for a few weeks, if you can believe it.”
“Really?” he replied, his eyes wide with wonder. “He really doesn’t seem like your type.”
“You say that like you’ve known me long enough to really know my type,” I giggled. “You’re right though; he’s way too full of himself. He thinks he’s better than everyone else.”
Larsa nodded. “People like him don’t care about community.”
I looked his way and couldn’t help but smile. “You’re exactly right. What’s the point of amassing wealth just to cling to it and shut others out? Anyway, I don’t want to end up getting on a soapbox about the economy when we’re here to enjoy ourselves.”
Larsa pursed his lips. “Would you need the soapbox to help you be taller?”
That question had me giggling. “No, it’s just a metaphor about going on a rant.” We heard the dinging that meant it was time to get to our seats, and I finished off my Champaign. “Are you ready?”
“Super ready!” he said with an excited grin.
We dropped our empty plastic flutes into a trash bin that we passed by and headed to our assigned portal. We showed our tickets, got our program books, and headed down the stairs. Once we’d found our seats, Larsa settled in and started looking through the booklet. He was excited when he found the pages that listed the musicians and their instruments.
“There’s Killian’s name!” he whispered to me. “And look, they even added Stefan as guest oboe.”
“If you’ll pardon me, madam and sir,” a voice said to my left. It was velvety and smooth, but even so I was worried we were going to be asked to keep quiet.
I looked over and realized it was the man from earlier– the one who had distracted Preston so that we could make our escape. I had no idea what to say to him right then.
“Please don’t worry about a thing,” he said. “I’m sorry to interrupt; I just didn’t want to surprise you when I took my seat.” He held up his ticket briefly before sliding it into his breast pocket.
“I understand,” I replied. “Of course, if that’s your seat, please take it.”
“What a coincidence,” Larsa said as the man sank down and rested his top hat on his lap. He was leaning over to see him better. “We saw you earlier. Hello again!”
The man smiled at him– pleasantly, not sarcastically or arrogantly. “Good evening, young sir.” His voice was friendly and kind without crossing the line into overly familiar. “May I say, it is wonderful to see someone so full of joy at being present for a symphonic performance.”
“You may,” Larsa confirmed with a grin.
“Thank you for distracting Preston earlier,” I said. “How do you know him?”
“I am glad to have been of service, milady,” he replied. “As for Mister Astor, he has quite the habit of making himself known despite the other party having little interest in him.”
“That sounds just like him,” I said.
“Oh, Leila,” Larsa chimed in, “do you think this whole row is for friends and family of the musicians?” He looked up at the dark-haired man. “Do you know someone who’s playing in the orchestra?”
I was going to let Larsa know that it was probably better not to ask, but the man had such a friendly demeanor, such kind eyes. Plus, he was already answering the question.
“As a matter of fact, young sir, I do,” he said, glancing to the stage for just a moment, his expression calm and teeming with fondness. “His name is Jean-Marc, and he plays the viola.”
A familiar and gentle song from our dear Edvard Grieg: