Chapter One

 

 

MARSHALL HARRINGTON took a deep breath. He felt as though within seconds he might split into a million pieces. Travel upon travel, a different hotel room almost every week. Not that he really had a home. He wouldn’t until he’d managed to land a job, but the search, the auditions, being a finalist for every position he applied for and coming in second each time to someone else—it all had his nerves about shot, and he couldn’t take much more. Maybe his parents were right and he should have gone to business school. All his father talked about was having Marshall come work with him on Wall Street. But music was in his blood, and no matter how many talks he’d had with his folks about his future, it wouldn’t leave or be pushed back. He’d worked hard, studied with some of the best conductors in the world, and now he was out on his own trying to get his first real job. He hadn’t expected a position with one of the top orchestras, but Marshall was talented and he had the gift. He had hoped one of the many smaller orchestras in the country, like the Glenn Arbor Symphony, would give him a chance. Up till now, though, none of them had, and he was so exhausted he could hardly move.

He heard the orchestra warming up and tuning, the familiar sound infusing him with a modicum of energy. “Thank God,” Marshall whispered under his breath. He heard applause, and the door in front of him opened. Marshall strode out onto the stage to take his bow. The auditorium was only half full, and Marshall groaned softly but pushed it away. He’d been working with the musicians on the stage every evening for the past week, and they were ready and deserved his best. Marshall turned to the musicians, lifted his baton, and began the first piece of music. He loved the energy in music, but the pieces that had been chosen for the program were lethargic and deep. Not the music Marshall had expected the attendees of a small symphony outside Houston would go for, and he’d been right, judging by the attendance. Marshall and the orchestra had worked to add some punch to the rather obscure, almost funereal pieces. He figured if he had any chance to get this job, he would have to shake things up a bit.

Halfway through the Mahler piece, his energy kicked in, the music working its way inside him. He picked up the pace just a little, and the orchestra followed right along with him. Suddenly, they were having a good time. He saw feet tapping and that extra little bit of—zing—excitement crept into the music. Marshall felt it now, reverberating off the walls of the concert hall, filling the air with anticipation. By the time the first half of the program was done, Marshall was back. After taking his bow and motioning to the musicians for their accolades, he strode off the stage with a spring in his step. He had no idea what the board members would think of the performance, but right now he didn’t care. He’d spent a year trying to be whatever he thought they wanted him to be. Tonight, he would be himself, and that meant taking a risk and doing things his way.

After taking a drink of water and clearing his mind, he returned for the second half of the program. Whoever had put this together must have been on crack, because the second half of the program was completely different from the first. Thankfully, he’d seen that and had been able to add vitality to the first half, because the Mozart in the second was lively, fun, and just wonderful.

The musicians let him take them where he wanted to go, and they seemed to have a great time. Between movements they smiled, and anticipation for what was to come filled the stage and drifted out into the audience. Marshall knew that kind of positive vibe always got carried along with the notes, and it lasted until the final piece ended and the music faded away.

The audience applauded, and Marshall took his bow and then stepped aside, motioning to the concertmaster and then the musicians. He left the stage and then returned for one final bow before leaving once again. As soon as the stage door closed behind him, the last of his energy left him. Fatigue, lack of sleep, strange beds—all of it caught up with him and his knees buckled. He managed to catch himself, but not before one of the stagehands saw him and rushed over to offer assistance. He helped Marshall to a chair and got him some water.

“I’m okay,” Marshall said as musicians and other people began gathering around. “Please, I’m fine. I just misstepped.” He drank from the bottle and slowly stood up. He met the gaze of each person around him and straightened his tuxedo jacket, forcing a smile he hoped appeared genuine. People drifted away as he thanked them for their concern. Honestly, Marshall wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to last, and he still had to put in an appearance at the after-performance reception. Taking a deep breath, he called on the last of his reserves of energy, put on a smile, and walked through the backstage areas and out through the auditorium to the reception in the lobby of the building.

A few people applauded politely when he entered, and then he joined the fray and spent the next hour talking to people and shaking hands. He got many compliments and thanked each person.

“Did you enjoy the performance?” he asked for what seemed like the millionth time.

“It was lovely and had such energy,” the late-middle-aged woman answered with a smile just like the dozens of others he’d seen that evening. Not that he expected anyone to tell him otherwise. If they hadn’t liked it, they’d still smile and then talk to their friends or other patrons when he wasn’t around to hear. “It’s about time we had some of that here. My husband and I have had season tickets for years, but after this year we might give them up. We want to support the arts and enjoy coming, but lately Reggie sometimes falls asleep.” She colored. “He didn’t tonight, though,” she added hastily before turning to look around. “Reggie,” she snapped more loudly than was necessary. Her husband disengaged from the couple he’d been talking to and walked over. “This is Maestro Harrington, the conductor. I was just saying how much we enjoyed the evening.”

“Best we’ve had in a while,” Reggie said as he shook hands with Marshall.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Marshall said.

Reggie moved closer. “Do you know who picks the stuff they play?”

“Usually the conductor also acts as music director and chooses the program. It’s generally given final approval by the board, but the programs I’m seeing were probably developed by committee.” Marshall felt they had little cohesiveness, and the ones he’d seen appeared to have been developed with a little something for everyone, but nothing that worked together. So either the person developing the programs was a schizophrenic drunk, or it was the result of an inept committee. Neither choice was particularly comforting.

“You didn’t pick this program, did you?” Reggie asked.

“No. I was given the pieces to conduct and tried to make the best of them.” Marshall smiled and stopped short of saying anything derogatory. He didn’t know who might be listening or what would get passed on to whom. “They’re good pieces….” He let the rest of the thought trail off. That would only lead to a discussion of the disjointed program, and he didn’t need to go there. Not with members of the board heading across the room with their eyes on him.

His heart beat a little faster. They seemed pleased and complimented him on the performance. Marshall could have sworn he’d had other jobs sewn up, but he’d been disappointed up to this point.

“Great program tonight,” Eleanor Beard, the head of the board, said, and Marshall knew it had been she who’d most likely put the program together, or had at least exerted her influence to get what she wanted.

“It was interesting. The audience members seemed to enjoy themselves.” He kept his true opinion to himself and his words bland and neutral. His legs ached and he was so tired he could hardly think, but he had to keep up appearances. This business was as much about how things looked as how they sounded, at least when you were trying to get yourself a job offer. “The musicians did, as well.”

They gradually made their way toward a table with glasses of sparkling wine. Each of the board members took one, so Marshall did as well. He sipped it, but drank very little. Alcohol of any type was not going to help him. He needed quiet, sleep, and to get laid—most definitely in that order. Normally he’d put sex first, but he was too tired to do anything, even if the grandest über-stud in all of Texas were to walk through the door.

“So, where do you see this organization headed musically?” Marvin Thompson asked. He seemed to be the only board member willing to step out from Eleanor’s shadow.

“Anywhere they want to go,” Marshall said. “You have a very talented and dedicated group of musicians. Most symphonies your size would give anything to have that kind of talent available to them.” It was an honest answer. The musicians were indeed very gifted, but nothing was being done to foster the talent and bring them together as a cohesive group. Marshall liked to think he’d done some of that over the past week, but it wouldn’t last if it wasn’t constantly nurtured.

“You know that funding of any type is tight and getting tougher every day for this kind of organization,” Eleanor began, and Marshall suddenly wondered if her day job was as an accountant. They were good at watching the money, but tended to lack any sort of vision or imagination when it came to developing this type of organization, where the best and most important results were hard to quantify.

“Of course, and I’m aware the orchestra, while healthy now, is on a trajectory where that could change in the future. Part of the conductor’s job is to help make sure that doesn’t happen.” He also knew the cause of the financial troubles. But he couldn’t tell them that the organization needed vision and programs that got people to come to the performances. Butts in the seats were what every orchestra needed—people who enjoyed the music enough to dig deeper and be willing to write checks or act as performance sponsors. That was not going to happen with a half-empty performance hall. The orchestra also needed to record and sell those recordings for extra revenue. He wanted to say something, but knew that would not get him anywhere, at least not today. He had to get the job before he would be able to make the changes that needed to be made.

“Thank you for your interest in our organization,” Eleanor said, and Marshall nodded. He’d known he wasn’t going to get an answer tonight, but he hadn’t expected an obvious brush-off either.

“I appreciate you having me,” Marshall said and set his glass on one of the trays before turning and heading back to his dressing room. He changed clothes, left the building, and walked out to his car.

Somehow he made it to his hotel and got to his room before collapsing on the bed. He woke a few hours later still in his clothes. He undressed and dug around in his bag for something to eat. He found a granola bar and wolfed it down, along with some water. Then he got undressed and climbed in bed, falling back to sleep.

When he woke next, Marshall was slightly disoriented and it took him a minute to remember where he was. He’d been in so many places—Dallas, Seattle, Cincinnati, Minneapolis—over the past few months, it took him a while to get his bearings. He tried to remember where he was supposed to be next and then sighed softly. He had no place to be. Last night had been his final audition, at least until more calls were put out for conductors, and that might not be for months. He figured he might as well go home for now. At least he could regroup and figure out his next move. Although that course of action would come with a healthy dose of “I told you so,” along with plenty of advice and guilt over his choices and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He was still thinking about his next move when his phone rang. It was muffled and he barely heard it. He got up and searched for it, finally locating it in the bag he’d taken to the concert hall the night before. He pulled it out and answered it just before it went to voice mail. “Hello,” he croaked and picked up one of the bottles of water from the nearby counter.

“Hey, Marshy, how’s it hanging?”

“God, Terry, it’s too early in the morning.” He shook his head. “But since you asked, the hanging parts are fine, but haven’t seen much action lately, except….”

“Whoa,” Terry, his best friend since they’d been kids, said in his deepest voice. “It was just an expression. I’m not interested in hearing anything about your little dude, okay? I’m a doctor, so I’ve seen plenty of little dudes in my time, but I don’t need to hear about yours.”

Marshall laughed; it was a long running joke between them. “Fine, but for the record, you did ask.” He took a drink and his throat felt less like it had been scraped with sandpaper.

“Duly noted, but still TMI. So, did you get the job?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it. The head of the board was pretty cool after the performance. But I won’t know for certain for a few weeks. I was the last person they had up for consideration, so hopefully they’ll make their decision soon. In the meantime I was going to head home, spend time with the folks, and listen to my twice-yearly quota of recrimination about my career choice. You know, the usual.” Marshall yawned and tried to stifle it. “I’m so tired. Last night after the performance my knees buckled. I caught myself and sat it out. Somehow I managed to make it through the evening, but I don’t know if I have the energy for the parental units.”

“Listen, take my doctorly advice: find a place to rest for a while. Do something different. You’ve been immersed in your music and trying to get a job for so long, and with such focus, you need to give your system a break.”

“Yeah, but what?” Marshall heard papers shuffling and figured Terry was on a break at work. Dr. Terry Millard was a brilliantly gifted surgeon at Columbia Medical Center. He was making a real name for himself with a number of successes and techniques that had proved lifesaving for heart patients who previously would have had no hope.

“I don’t know, but I’ll give it some thought. Where are you right now?”

“Houston. I have the hotel for another day, and I figured I’d try to relax today and then see if I can catch a flight home tomorrow.” Marshall yawned again and moved through the room to gather the clothes he’d strewn across the furniture when he undressed the night before.

“Get some rest and a good lunch, preferably nothing fried, maybe some light exercise, and try to relax and recharge. I’ll call you later and see how you’re doing.”

“That’s some house call—all the way to Houston,” Marshall said.

Terry chuckled. “It’s just sound advice. Besides, I know you almost as well as you know yourself. You’ve been so focused on your goal throughout this audition period that you’ve probably been living on granola bars, caffeine, and pure guts. Last night it caught up with you, and it’ll get worse and make you sick if you don’t give yourself the chance to recharge.” Terry paused. “And don’t make me come there. I will, and then you’ll be sorry.”

“I know. You’ll come to Texas and drag me to every rodeo event known to man.” One of the little-known things about the East Coast born-and-bred Dr. Millard was that he adored rodeo. He watched it on television and attended events when he could, which unfortunately wasn’t often, with his busy schedule. “I promise to be good and get some rest. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Okay. And get some decent food,” Terry said with a smile in his voice. They disconnected, and Marshall headed for the bathroom. He cleaned up and then dressed before leaving the room and heading down to the lobby, where he asked the clerk for a good place for lunch. The clerk checked his watch.

“It’s too late for barbeque,” he said softly. Marshall nodded slowly. He knew the drill. The good places only made so much, and you had to get in line and wait. Once it was gone, it was gone, and eleven in the morning was too late to get in line on a Saturday.

“I want something light and healthy,” Marshall said. The clerk nodded and looked at him rather blankly. “It’s okay, I’ll find something.” Marshall thanked the clerk and left the hotel. He walked down the street near his hotel and found a small restaurant. He sat at a table and ordered a salad and soup. When his food came, he ate it all and realized just how hungry he was. He thought back and realized he’d skipped lunch most days, and his dinners had been sporadic. No wonder he’d felt light-headed and had little energy. He’d done this before—become so focused on the one thing he wanted that he forgot to eat. Marshall ordered another bowl of soup and finished that. Finally full, he sat back at the table and thought about what he was going to do next. Going home was about his only option at this point, unless he simply wanted to travel a while. A vacation sounded good, but wouldn’t get him closer to his goal. Yet the more he thought about it, some time away to relax sounded better and better.

After paying his bill, Marshall left the restaurant and went for a short walk. His phone beeped, letting him know he had a message. He pulled it out and saw a message from Terry, asking him to call. Marshall messaged him back and was about to call when his phone rang.

“I have to get ready for surgery in ten minutes, but I might have a solution for you. How about a vacation?”

“I was just thinking about that,” Marshall said with a smile.

“Excellent. Phillip, one of my rodeo buddies, has a friend who’s just opened a ranch for tourists.”

“A dude ranch? You have to be kidding.”

“Why not? It’s about an hour outside Houston, and Phillip says there’s some rodeo folks in the area. The owner’s name is Indigo Santana. He was a bull rider a few years ago. I saw him ride once. According to Phillip, he inherited the family ranch and is opening it to guests. It should be a lot of fun, with no pressure. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want, but it’ll be quiet and it will give you a chance to think about what you want to do. You also won’t have to go home to face your folks, at least until you hear if you got the job or not.” That did sound appealing.

“My idea of a vacation is an all-inclusive resort with pool boys, fruity drinks with umbrellas, and all the sun I can soak in,” Marshall said. “A ranch is hardly my idea of fun.” He didn’t share Terry’s fascination for all things rodeo.

Terry sighed, and Marshall thought he heard a door close in the background. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but according to Phillip, there are few things better-looking than tight cowboy butts in tight jeans and chaps.” He could almost see Terry shuddering. “Now, you are forbidden from telling anyone I ever said that, and if you do, I’ll say you were drunk and don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Okay, I get the point.” The image that flashed through his mind was most definitely intriguing.

“Good. I’ll e-mail you the details, and you can call the ranch. They’re just starting out, so they have plenty of room and should be able to accommodate you for as long as you want to stay. Phillip said they usually book by the week, but they’ll be flexible.” Terry paused. “Go have some fun with the cowboys.”

“Straight cowboys,” Marshall grumbled.

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Phillip said Dante Rivers lives in the area. He was a champion bull rider and is gay. It doesn’t mean anyone there will be gay, but you’re there to de-stress and have a good time, not hook up with everything that moves.”

“Look who’s talking—the playboy heart surgeon,” Marshall countered. “Fine, I’ll call and see what they have to say, but I’m not making any promises.”

“I gotta go, but I’ll text the number in a second.” Terry hung up, and true to his word, a text came through with a phone number and a message less than a minute later: This will do you good. Think of the view. LOL. Marshall rolled his eyes and shoved his phone back into his pocket. He walked back to the hotel, trying to decide if he wanted to do this or not, and he was definitely leaning toward not. His phone rang again and he pulled it out and answered the call.

“Terry,” he said with a smile.

“Excuse me,” He sighed when he heard the voice on the other end. He should have looked at the display.

“Hi, Mom,” Marshall said.

“How did the performance go last night?”

“Very well. The two halves of the program were really different, but I managed to tie them together and make them work. I just don’t know if that’s what the board wanted. They’ll let me know in a few weeks if I’ve got the job.”

“Well, if you don’t, you can always come work with your father. You know he’ll always bring you into the firm.” That was their answer for everything.

“That isn’t what I want, Mom,” Marshall said. “I hate the thought of that kind of work. It’s dull and uninteresting. I know Dad loves it, but I can’t stand the thought of it. If I come back to New York, it will be to take up a position there with one of the musical groups, not Wall Street.”

“But you are coming back, aren’t you? And when you’re here, just go in to work with your father one day and give it a try. You’ll eventually inherit the firm, you know.” The thought was enough to give Marshall a migraine. “Someone will have to lead it.”

Suddenly the thought of spending a few weeks on a dude ranch sounded like an appealing proposition. “I’ve decided to take a few weeks’ vacation. I’ve been very tired and I need some time to myself.”

“You can rest while you’re here.” Yeah, rest combined with pressure to do what they want, and guilt piled on every time I say no.

“No, Mom. I don’t think so. Going to New York is not what I think I need right now.”

“But….”

He knew she was disappointed. His parents were good people, and they wanted the best for him. Unfortunately, what they thought was best was different from his own vision, and Marshall wanted to make his own way, at least partially. Marshall had enough money of his own that he didn’t have to work. His grandfather had founded the brokerage firm his father now ran and owned. He’d also set up Marshall, as well as his cousins, with generous trust funds, so Marshall didn’t need to work for a living. He wanted this job because it was what he truly wanted to do, what got deep down into his soul and moved him. The money was secondary, although it would be nice to earn money for himself rather than requesting funds from his trustee whenever he wanted cash, especially since his trustee was his father. But not for long. Next year he came of age at twenty-seven, as far as the trust was concerned.

“Mom, I’m not staying away forever. It’s just a few weeks of rest and relaxation. I’ll call you when I can, and you have nothing to worry about. I promise.” They talked for a few minutes more and then hung up. Marshall walked the rest of the way back to the hotel. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and he found he was now in a great mood. When he got back to his room, he pulled out his phone and made a call to the ranch.

“Yeah,” the man said who answered the phone.

“Uh, yes. I was given this number as that of a dude ranch. I’m interested in spending some time and was curious about your availability. I got the number through a friend of a friend. Phillip.” He hoped he had the right number.

“This is the Circle R, and, yeah, you got the right place. Hang on a minute.” The phone was set down and Marshall waited. He wasn’t sure what kind of place this was, given the initial reception. But he waited for a few minutes.

“Hello. You wish to stay with us?” said a man with a deep, rich voice.

“Yes. I was wondering if you have any vacancies. I’d like to spend, say, a week at your ranch.” Who knew? Marshall figured he could always stay longer if he liked it, and if he didn’t, he could leave and go back to New York.

A deep laugh followed. “Of course. I’m Indigo. We’ve just begun accepting guests. But we should be able to accommodate you. When did you want to arrive?” A smooth Texas accent, combined with a smooth, almost musically rich voice, had Marshall’s heart pumping for a second. Then he shook his head to return his attention where it belonged.

“Tomorrow, if that’s okay.” Marshall’s answer was met with a pause.

“That will be fine. I’ll put you in the book. I’m assuming you need directions?”

“Just the address. I can use GPS to get there.” Indigo laughed. “I take it there’s a problem.” Now Marshall was worried.

“GPS doesn’t seem to work very well where we are. We’re off the beaten path, and the GPS programs haven’t done a good job figuring out where we are. Have you got a piece of paper? I’ll give you directions you can use that won’t get you lost.” Marshall reached for his folder and found a sheet of paper. He wrote down the directions as well as the other information he needed to know. He gave Indigo his information as well. Then Indigo said, “We’ll see you late tomorrow morning. If you get here in time, you’re welcome to join us for lunch.”

“Thank you, I’ll see you then.” They ended the call, and Marshall smiled. He found he was looking forward to getting away. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.