A single spotlight flooded the middle of the infamous stage at Carnegie Hall in New York City as a petite, poised young woman took her rightful place front and center before the adoring crowd of music aficionados. It was a sold out crowd tonight, just another in a string of dates across the country. A beaded ivory gown hugged her every curve as she took the stage.
Raising the wooden instrument to her chin, she slowly began to bow a haunting melody so beautiful that you couldn't help but be moved to tears by the time she ended the first movement. Her doe eyes were shut tightly as she lost herself in the music, a routine that had held her sanity since she was five years old. She had never felt as at home as when she was holding her violin. As she transitioned into the more upbeat second movement, she finally opened her eyes to gaze out over the crowd. It was a sea of blackness as the bright lights made it nearly impossible to see anything else.
Claudia Salinger had been a successful performing violinist for the past five years, traveling all over the world to share her classically trained gift with her fans. She had gained notoriety shortly after college when she had sold out Carnegie Hall for the first time. Best known for pieces she had written herself, she would go on to gain international fame upon the release of her signature sonata, "Unrequited." When asked about her inspiration, Claudia would only shake her head earnestly and explain that some things were better left unsaid.
Being known so well for a single piece of music was both a blessing and a curse. She had flirted with retiring the sonata a few years ago but fans had repeatedly requested it at her shows. The truth was Claudia never let herself think about what had inspired the piece except for when she was on stage performing it. As she strummed the opening chords of the third and final movement, her mind inevitably drifted to thoughts of him. Opening her eyes again, she looked to the front row to try to focus on something, anything, else. Instead, she was awakened with a sudden jolt as the history of eight years came crashing back to her.
There he was, sitting in the front row, leaning forward and watching her in anticipation. He was slightly older than the last time she saw him, but he was still the same man she had fallen in love with at the age of sixteen. His hands rested on his knees as he sat mesmerized by the music. She wanted to stop playing and run off the stage like an embarrassed adolescent, but the seasoned professional in her forced herself to finish out the piece. Just a few more notes and she could retreat to the safe haven of her private dressing room.
Closing her eyes tightly, Claudia managed to get through the final notes without making a single blunder. The lofty concert hall immediately burst into applause, sending her back into performance mode. The spotlight went out for a moment as she dropped the violin back to her side. Taking a deep breath, she waited for the spotlight to come back up so that she could take her bow. Stepping into the radiant light, she bowed deeply and humbly before smiling appreciatively out to the crowd.
The applause was thunderous as she bowed again, allowing her eyes to slip back to the front row. He was grinning widely as he clapped harder and louder than anyone. She couldn't help but smile slightly in response, happy that he appreciated something that he didn't know was written about him. Nodding her head slightly, she acknowledged his presence before standing up and waving to the room. She kept waving until the heavy velvet curtain fell in front of her and she could stop pretending to have it so together.
A uniformed teenager who worked at the concert hall appeared quickly at her side to take the violin back to her dressing room. Another young girl was soon behind him to offer her a bottle of water and tell her that the flowers were being picked up and sent upstairs. Claudia thanked them both dismissively before slipping backstage to greet her crowd of well-wishers. Masses of faceless people offered their congratulations and compliments as she navigated her way through the chaos. Claudia smiled at each of them appreciatively, painting a picture of perfect grace. Her towering bodyguard followed closely behind with her manager, doing their best to keep anyone from getting too close. It was their job to protect her, but it was her job to make sure that her fans felt welcomed despite their presence.
It was only when they managed to escape to the private hallway upstairs that Claudia finally allowed herself to relax. Ross followed her into the dressing room after asking Max to wait outside. When the door was closed securely behind them, she turned immediately to her manager, old violin teacher and most trusted confidant. "He was here," she whispered hoarsely, tears springing to her eyes. He didn't even to ask to understand what she meant. He knew exactly who she was talking about. "Sitting right in the front row, Ross. Did you know he was coming?"
He had known a few weeks ago that he was coming, but he hadn't had the heart to tell her in case he didn't show up. It had been eight long years since she had seen him last, eight long years since he had broken her heart. It had been Ross that had to help Claudia pick up the pieces of her life when losing him nearly devastated her. No one in the Salinger family had seen how deeply his departure from her life had impacted her. She had hidden it well from everyone but him. And when she had written "Unrequited," he was the only one she told the truth. He wished that he could lie to her and tell her that he hadn't known, but he owed Claudia the truth. She had been honest with him then, and he would be honest with her now.
"His manager called a few weeks ago to request tickets. He's playing a concert at the Garden tonight," he explained. Claudia's face fell at his admission. He knew how hard it was for her to trust anyone, especially as she became more and more famous. She hadn't always been this way but losing him had turned her into this person. She had built walls around her heart that no one other than her family could ever manage to penetrate. "I didn't know if he would even use them. I didn't want to upset you if there was no reason."
Resting her hand on her hip, Claudia began to pace the short length of the dressing room. Part of her was furious with Ross for keeping a secret, but she knew that he was only trying to protect her. He knew how vulnerable she was when it came to him. "You should have told me," she retorted finally, stopping to look up at him. "I could have handled it, you know. I mean, it's been eight years, Ross. I would have been fine."
Shaking his head firmly, Ross refused to accept her pathetic attempt at acting like she was over the situation. "Look at your initial reaction, Claude. You're clearly not fine with this," he pointed out. "You never talk about 'Unrequited' to anyone. You won't even talk about him with me. I didn't want to rip your heart apart if I didn't have to, but I should have told you. You don't have to sit here and pretend to be strong with me. I know that seeing him hurt."
She didn't want to admit the panic attack she had almost had on stage. Rather, she simply smiled coyly as she sat down at her large makeup mirror. "I guess I should get ready to go back to the hotel," she declared aloud before setting to the tedious task of her post-concert routine. Ross hesitated at the door, his hand resting on the knob. "Unless there is anything else…"
"He wants to see you," he admitted finally, his eyes finding hers in the mirror. A look of fear passed in her usually stoic gaze before she caught herself. The last thing she wanted to do was see him. As long as she didn't have to see him, Claudia could almost pretend that he didn't exist. She could forget the boyish smile that had captivated her heart. She could forget the rough feeling of his fingers against hers. She could forget how amazing they sounded when they played together. She could forget the salty taste of his tears against her lips as he kissed her goodbye that fateful night. "He's downstairs in a private office. It's up to you."
For eight years, Claudia had thought about what she would say if she ever got the chance to talk to him again. The truth was that she could have found him at any time if she wanted. The music business was a small world, and for the past five years, they had both been at the top of the game. Still, she had kept her distance because she knew one moment with him had the potential to wreck her completely. She hadn't worked this hard to have it come crashing down around her over some silly girlhood crush. She had grown up from that person. She could do this.
"Fine," she relented nonchalantly, hoping that Ross wouldn't question her casual demeanor. Ross nodded once before disappearing out into the hallway. When she was alone again, Claudia cradled her head in her hands. If she was more coherent, she would be feverishly trying to perfect her look, but she was too anxious to worry about such trite things. In just a few seconds, he was going to come striding back into her life and send everything in her orderly little world reeling. Was she ready for that? She wouldn't have time to really figure it out if the curt knock at her door was any indication. Looking at herself in the mirror one final time, she shrugged and prayed that someone somewhere was watching out for her heart. "Come in."
Turning on the chrome barstool, she felt warmth flood to her face as soon as he laid eyes on her. He stood there in the doorway, completely caught up in the elegant beauty of her presence. There were no words to express the million emotions racing through his mind. The entire speech he had rehearsed in his head for the past eight years suddenly flew out of his brain at the mere sight of her. He wanted to rush forward and sweep her into a tight hug like they had when they were younger. However, they were both different people now – too famous for their liking, used to having people cater to their every whim, consistently hiding how they felt from the people around them. He couldn't help but think how the versions of themselves eight years ago would hate who they had become.
"You were wonderful tonight," he complimented her finally, his voice sounding incredibly loud in the deafening silence of the room. She bowed her head graciously and thanked him. "You had the entire room eating right out of your hand. They were completely caught up in it. I've always heard that your concerts are an experience like no other. Every single piece was completely beautiful, but I have to admit that 'Unrequited' was my favorite."
"Of course it was," she laughed humorlessly before rising up to greet him. He looked at her questioningly, as if he couldn't figure out what she quite meant. "I mean, of course, it's everyone's favorite. I guess it's what I'm kind of known for." She stood in front of him and studied him. Her first instinct was to reach up and brush the lock of hair away from his eyes as she had thousands of times years ago. He was still as fidgety as ever, twisting the silver ring on his right hand absently while they talked. She stared at his hands, taking note of the calluses on his fingers. His hands still looked exactly the same as they had when they had played together in the garage. At least one thing between them hadn't changed. "I'm glad that you could come tonight, Griffin. I appreciate the support."
"Stop it, Claude," he said automatically. She recoiled at his admonishment, crossing her arms over her body protectively. He hadn't come here to fight with her, but the last thing he was going to let her do was pretend that he was just some other random fan. "I'm not just some person that you don't know. Don't act like that with me, please."
She bit her bottom lip in frustration as he stepped closer to her. "What do you want me to say, Griffin?" she demanded angrily. He was the one who had showed up here tonight, and he wanted her to pretend like nothing had happened. He wanted her to ignore the last eight years of living without him in her life. "I'm not as good at pretending as you are, I guess. I can't forget that you used to be something to me that you're not anymore. I can't act like I know you when I don't. You left me a long time ago. It's been eight damn years. Things change."
For the first time since coming into her dressing room, Griffin allowed himself to reach out for her. She took a step back at first but he pursued her. Even if she wanted to put up a fight, he was determined to hold her in his arms and show her that things hadn't changed. Against her better judgment, she relaxed in his embrace and allowed him to comfort her for a minute. "I may have left you, but I never stopped thinking about you," he murmured into her hair softly. Claudia pulled back slightly and looked into his azure eyes. "I've followed every moment of your career. I saw you play at Carnegie Hall that first time. I've been here all along, Claude."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Why didn't you come to me sooner?" she nearly yelled, pushing his chest to put distance between them. She felt as young and naïve as that rainy night when he had showed up at her door in New York. She'd only been at Julliard a few weeks when he had broken up with his girlfriend. Having him show up that night to see her, his clothes soaked completely through, Claudia had known that it was going to change everything. Closing her eyes, she could still almost smell the spring rain. "I waited for you, Grif. I waited for you to realize that saying goodbye was a mistake."
Her voice was quieter now, sending a shiver down his spine. He hadn't heard her call him by his nickname in a long time, but it felt like coming home. He'd only been back to San Francisco a few times since his band hit it big, and each time he'd driven by the Salingers' old house. It was there that she had fallen in love with him, and without even noticing it until it was too late, he had fallen in love with her. All those nights in the shed playing music together had been about something much bigger. It had felt all wrong at the time, but time and distance had made him realize that was only a result of his overwhelming and all-consuming fear.
"I was wrong to come see you that night in New York," he confessed finally. She started to say something, her face pinched with anger, but he held his hand up to show that he had more to say. "I should have waited until I knew that I was ready to give you everything because that's what you deserved. I was so scared to feel the things that I was feeling, and instead of dealing with it like a man, I ran. The last eight years, all I have done is run. I'm tired of running. I want to stand still."
Taking a step forward, Claudia allowed Griffin to wrap his arms around her once again. She had the opportunity to decide how to react. She could be the angry woman that had consumed her for the past eight years, or she could choose to let it go. "You can stop running," she proclaimed as she buried her face in his soft cashmere sweater. He squeezed her tightly before reaching down to tilt her chin up. Her light brown eyes were reassuring. "You can stand still with me, Grif. Just because you weren't here doesn't mean that all the love just went away."
He wanted to tell her that he loved her too, but he knew that such an admission at this point would only seem like a lie. "I cried all the way back to the airport that night," he remembered as he rested his chin on top of her head. "When I got home, I holed up in the studio and wrote for three days straight. Everything on my debut album was a result of that night. The anger, the sadness, the joy – you were the inspiration for everything."
"I was almost twenty before I would have the courage to write my music," she confessed. "I spent the first two years at Julliard just trying to get up the guts to really play again without you. I could go through the motions just fine, but my heart wasn't in it. Finally, one of my professors told me that I just needed to be more honest with myself. I wrote my first piece that night while I thought about you. You are my Unrequited."
Griffin reached down and traced his fingers down the side of her cheeks before shaking his head slowly. "It was never unrequited," he revealed before leaning down. He would have sworn that she had been holding her breath the entire time until his lips finally found their way to hers. The kiss was long and hungry, deep and soulful, desperate and complete. "I loved you, Claudia Salinger. Starting that first time we played together at your house and every moment since, I have loved you. I love you still."
"I love you, too, Griffin," she vowed before leaning up to kiss him again. He wove his arms around her waist as her fingers tangled in the downy hairs at the nape of his neck. She sighed contently when they pulled apart and he pressed his forehead against hers. There was a lot to figure out and eight years of history to work through, but Claudia knew that they would. They had to if they were ever going to be happy together, and she was determined to make sure that they were because they belonged together. She had always known that, and now that he finally understood, she would not lose him again.
To the outside world, their relationship would never make sense. It had started when she was too young to really understand what love meant and he was too old to be an appropriate match for her. He was the ex-husband of her older sister, a man that she had truly loved and had truly loved her. Their unbreakable bond lacked normalcy and consistency. And yet, it was the strongest connection either of them had ever known. At one point of another, they had meant everything to each other. They had started out as family before becoming friends. That friendship had led them to playing together and eventually slowly falling in love. For one perfect night, they had even been lovers. Now, eight years later, they were all those things all at once. More than that, they were Claudia Salinger and Griffin Holbrook. They were just them.