Once More From the Top Online - Nan Reinhardt

ONE

Carrie Halligan’s fingers tickled the keys of the ebony grand piano, finding the notes almost without conscious volition. She’d played “Misty” so many times in this bar, she didn’t even have to think about the music. Instead, she focused on the low rocks glass just to her right. One last slip of paper, only one more request, and her shift was over.

The click of silverware against plates, the chink of glasses being bussed, and the murmur of a dozen conversations overwhelmed her music. Didn’t matter. Carrie wasn’t there to be the center of attention. Her job was to provide the background and that suited her just fine. A smattering of applause broke out as she played the final notes and tossed a smile over her bare shoulder. If it weren’t for the can lights shining down on the piano, she’d have been freezing in the strapless black dress.

She pulled out the last slip of paper and unfolded it; Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” She recognized the spiky handwriting—the Dugans were in the audience. The couple came in every other Saturday and stayed for hours listening to her play. Sometimes they danced, snuggled close in each other’s arms. Their obvious infatuation warmed Carrie’s heart. That kind of devotion was rare these days.

“This one’s for Suz from Peter,” she announced and began the haunting ballad amid a collective sigh from the crowd.

“Thanks, Carrie,” a deep voice called and she smiled as she played on.

Tired and ready to go home, she frowned when Rudy, the bartender, appeared over her shoulder and dropped another slip of paper into the glass. Holding up one finger, he backed off the tiny stage, mouthing, “One more?” With a nod and a wink, she played the last notes of the old ballad.

It happened sometimes. A late-night request, usually from a sad barfly dredging up old memories or some couple who wanted one last dance.

She rolled her neck and stretched her fingers before reaching into the glass. When she opened the slip and peered at it under the soft glow of the piano light, her breath caught.

Haydn’s Concerto in C Major.

Her pulse pounded in her ears, shutting out the chatter in the bar as she gazed uncomprehending at the paper. She squinted, blinking at the square black letters unable to make sense of what was written there.

Dear God in heaven. Who requested this?

Her fingers shook and the words on the paper blurred. Only one person would ask her to play that particular piece, and there was no way on earth he was in this bar. She tensed, afraid to even turn around. Closing her eyes, she released a long, shuddering breath before glancing as casually as she could at the crowd.

Is he here? Is it possible?

Heat rose into her cheeks and perspiration dampened the back of her neck as she scanned the room. The lighting was so dim she could barely make out individual faces in the crowd. People were already beginning to stand up to leave, assuming, no doubt, that she’d finished playing for the night. Carrie didn’t see him, but would she even recognize him? It had been so long—a lifetime ago.

“I–I’m sorry.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I don’t know this one.”

“You knew it once. Play it.”

An icy chill settled in the pit of her stomach as she recognized the voice coming from across the bar. Her head whipped around and she peered into the shadows. A tall figure stood silhouetted in the entrance.

She didn’t need to see his face. Even in the dark, his towering height and that unmistakable halo of dark red hair identified him.

Maestro Liam Reilly.

He stepped into the light and their eyes met. His mouth curved into a hint of a smile that sent a spasm of longing through her. The cacophony in the bar dwindled to distant background noise as she gazed dumbfounded across the room. It was him. Silver threads shone among the thick hair that swept back off his forehead, except for that one stray strand that still fell to his brow.

He’s older.

The inanity of that thought occurred to the logical part of her stunned mind even as she tried to comprehend that he was standing less than thirty feet away.

Of course he’s older. It’s been sixteen years.

Helpless to do anything but gape, she closed her fingers around the scrap of paper, crumpling it into a tiny ball. Her stomach churned, and although the urge to flee was overwhelming, she knew her trembling legs would never hold her