Jack Aubrey was just finishing his breakfast at ten AM when Killick showed Tom Pullings and William Mowett into the dining room. "Hello, Boys. Have a seat. Killick! Killick, there!"
"Which it is right here," Killick retorted sourly as he set mugs front of the two younger men who'd sat down with amusement glinting in their eyes. Tom's contained his favoured latte while William's chocolate mocha almost had more chocolate than coffee in it.
Neither said a word as Jack stuffed a last bite of toast in his mouth before Killick took the remains of his breakfast away. He returned moments later with a fresh cup of coffee to replace the dregs of Jack's previous cup. Once the butler/manservant had disappeared into the kitchen, the tall, robust man studied his two visitors with thoughtful blue eyes. "All right, how bad is the news you have for me?"
"I beg your pardon?" Tom exchanged a startled glance with his partner. "What makes you think we have bad news for you, Jack?"
The older man arched an amused golden eyebrow as he sipped his strong black coffee. "If it'd been good news, you'd have been bursting to tell me, not even waiting for Killick to leave me before the words tumbled out, pell mell."
"He has a good point, Tom," William remarked with a laugh as the taller business partner blushed. "You're lucky he didn't mention that you'd have been squirming and fidgeting like an overeager puppy ready to play."
Tom glared half-heartedly at his stoutly-built companion. "Oh, shut it, Will."
"What's happened?" Jack asked, amused by their byplay. He'd never regretted the day their talent agency had bought out his old agent. His career as a solo violinist had really taken off once the two men had taken over. Tom usually handled the publicity and people while Will handled the logistics and technicalities. "Don't sugar-coat it, Tom. Tell it to me straight."
Brushing back a lock of dark hair that had come free of his usual ponytail, Tom leaning forward in his seat, brown eyes intent as they met Jack's blue ones. "The fact is, Jack, your popularity has been waning for some time. Your albums aren't selling as well and you're lucky if half the seats are filled at your concerts."
"I'd noticed the bit about the concerts," Jack retorted dryly, remembering how much it disappointed him to see so many empty seats when he stepped onto a stage. "I'm guessing you have a plan to correct that."
This time, it was William who nodded, nervously running his hand through his short brown curls. "We wondered how you'd feel about working with a partner?"
"What, you mean another violinist?" Jack scowled at the thought. Much as he respected the other violinists out there, none of them were quite at his level. "No, thank you."
Tom shook his head. "We know better than to try to pair you with a violinist. We were thinking a different instrument."
"Actually, you already have someone in mind, don't you?" Jack asked with a wry smile, not in the mood to listen to Tom figuratively beat around the bush.
Unfortunately, William had been taking a sip of his mocha at the exact moment that Jack spoke and spluttered into it. Killick appeared as if by magic, helpfully pounding William on the back and grumbling about chocolate mocha sprayed all over his nice clean table. His voice a little strained, William said, "Tell him, Tom. I told you he'd rather we be blunt."
"All right, all right." Tom gave an apparently exasperated huff, but Jack had seen the concern in the brown eyes when William began coughing. The slender man turned back to Jack, "The man we have in mind is Dr. Stephen Maturin."
Jack had been ready for any name but that one, "The cellist?"
"Yes, the cellist," Tom nodded, his gaze serious as he met Jack's.
The blond violinist sat back in his chair, thinking about it. While Jack chose to be a soloist simply because he'd yet to meet a musician who matched his talent, he was well aware of Stephen Maturin, celebrated cellist and known eccentric. The man had belonged to an orchestra at one time, but had often wound up left behind due to his tendency to become wrapped up in some scientific observations he was attempting to make. In the end, Maturin had quit the orchestra and gone solo, hiring a man to ensure the cellist made it to his concerts on time and ready to perform. Surprisingly, it had worked and Maturin's career had soared as a result. After a short silence, Jack asked, "Maturin's career is faltering?"
"It is," William confirmed with a nod of his head, quickly flipping closed the PDA he'd pulled out while they'd given Jack time to think. "I like to keep track of how the other musicians are doing and Dr Maturin is the only one whose skill on his chosen instrument equals your own on the violin."
Tom picked up from there, proving that they'd probably rehearsed this. "Not only that, but Dr. Maturin is an aesthetic contrast to you with his dark, short hair, pale complexion, and shorter, skinnier build."
"And a contrast in terms of personality from what I've heard," Jack murmured thoughtfully. Maturin was known to be taciturn to the point of rudeness, keeping mostly to himself and never going out except in scientific or musical pursuits. Jack, on the other hand, was a very social, loudly gregarious man, making frequent appearances at local parties and clubs.
William didn't quite stifle a chuckle at that while Tom reluctantly nodded. "Well, yes, that might require some effort to adjust to on both parts, but we feel it's a rather novel idea and will breathe some life into your career."
"Does Maturin know about the idea yet?" Jack glanced shrewdly from one to the other, amused when neither man seemed able to meet his eyes.
Tom answered the question, the tips of his ears turning red. "Well, no. We've spoken with his agent, Blakeney, but he asked that we make sure you like the idea before he dreams of speaking with Maturin about it. Said that the doctor wouldn't even consider it unless he knew you would want to do it at all."
Jack remained quiet for several moments, watching with hidden amusement as the two agents squirmed nervously in their seats. Finally, he nodded. "All right. I'm willing to try this duet business, but I'll blame you two if it flops."
"Fair enough." Tom nodded, quickly followed by William. "We'll let you know in a few days what Dr Maturin thinks."
Jack rose and the three men walked to the door together. "Right. Take care, Lads."
"We will." They each shook Jack's hand and nodded to Killick when the old man opened the door for them. Just as it started to shut behind them, Jack saw Will catch Tom's hand and give it a squeeze. He smiled to himself and headed to the bedroom to get dressed. He had an ex-wife and children to visit.
When Jack finally met Stephen face-to-face the following week, he wondered at the wisdom of teaming up with the man. The cellist wore a pair of jeans that had seen better days and a T-shirt with more than the usual number of holes. His hair was, indeed, short and dark, but his chin and cheeks were raspy with stubble. Trying not to let his doubts show, Jack glanced inquiringly at William Blakeney, Maturin's agent. Younger than Tom and Will, Blakeney looked as if he was barely twenty, but he met Jack's gaze frankly. "I know Stephen doesn't look like much now, Mr Aubrey, but Padeen always makes sure he's clean and dressed in plenty of time for his shows."
"Well, there's more to a man than his appearance, isn't there?" Jack mused, appreciating Blakeney's frank response. "Please introduce us."
The young man nodded and led Jack over to where Maturin was gazing intently into a tank of some sort. "Stephen, you have a visitor."
"I don't have time for visitors, William, you know that," Maturin answered impatiently even as he carefully dropped something into the tank. There was a flurry of movement within and the doctor's cheeks flushed under the stubble. "Did you see, William? Wasn't she beautiful?"
Blakeney answered with more patience than Jack would have expected from one so young. "Very beautiful, Stephen, and I told you Jack Aubrey would be coming by to see you today."
"You did?" Maturin looked up at that, puzzlement in his eyes as he gazed at his agent. When the curly blond head bobbed in a nod, the pale eyes moved to Jack, studying him intently. "You are Jack Aubrey?"
Jack nodded even as part of him wondered why there was something about that gaze that unsettled him so much. "I am, doctor."
"You are amenable to the idea of performing duets with me?" Maturin straightened up from his crouch and Jack realised that other man was nearly of a height with him.
He nodded again. "If it would be no trouble for you."
"Let us try one together before we agree to a partnership," Maturin suggested, taking up a cloth to clean his hands. He made a sound of annoyance when it became clear the cloth was too filthy to suffice.
A tall, muscular man appeared then with a clean cloth and a basin of water. Maturin addressed the man in a language Jack guessed was Irish Gaelic, since the cellist had grown up in Ireland with his father's family. The tall man responded in kind as Stephen washed his hands and forearms. Once he finished, the man left as silently as he'd come. "Are you ready to try a duet now, Dr Maturin?"
"Yes, Padeen has my cello ready in the music room," Maturin responded as he removed his shirt and pulled on the one Blakeney held out to him. "Do you have your violin?"
Jack held up his case in silent answer. Though the case itself was quite battered from Jack's years of travelling, the instrument within was in the best of conditions, carefully and lovingly cared for by Jack over the years. "Just need a few moments to prepare."
"Good." Maturin led Jack into what appeared to be a music room. A cello stood in pride of place beside a chair with a music stand set before it. A piano stood to one side with 'Padeen' seated on the bench. "Padeen will help you tune your instrument. Do you have a composer you prefer?"
"I seem to have developed a fondness for Boccherini of late, if that would be all right with you." Jack set his case on top of the piano and withdrew his violin, stroking the instrument lovingly, unaware of the soft smile that curved his lips now. Setting it down for the moment, he began to rosin his bow, turning to glance at Maturin inquiringly.
The cellist had moved over to the shelves that lined one wall of the room and plucked one of the books up. "I happen to have a selection of his string music here. I bought the book for the cello pieces, though I've often considered attempting to transpose one of the other solo pieces for cello, simply for the challenge of it."
"You choose, doctor. I've no preference." Jack assured him, and then turned to Padeen, who waited patiently. Just as he opened his mouth to ask Padeen to give him the notes he needed in order to tune his violin, the large man did just that, playing an A, followed by a scrolled D minor chord, second inversion. "Thank you, Padeen."
Jack proceeded to tune his violin, slowly scraping his bow across the strings. Nodding his satisfaction, he turned to see that Maturin had tuned his cello as well and another chair had been placed near the one in which Maturin was seated. "If you would care to join me, Mr Aubrey, we can begin."
"Of course, Dr Maturin." Jack sat down in the provided chair and looked at the music on the stand. It was a piece he was familiar with, so he nodded and positioned his bow for the first note. At a nod from Maturin, he began to play, soon losing himself in the joy and pleasure of the music he was creating.
When the cello began at the correct moment, Jack opened his eyes to look at Maturin. The cellist had his eyes closed, his focus on the music. As if he felt the blue eyes on him, the other man opened his eyes and met Jack's gaze. For the rest of the piece, neither musician looked away from the other. They were united, playing almost as one being. After the last note drifted into silence, Jack and Maturin remained as they were, catching their breath. Both were startled by the sound of clapping and looked around to see Tom, Will, Blakeney, and Padeen standing in the doorway to the music room, applauding.
Jack looked back at Maturin curiously, wondering what he'd think of the reaction. Maturin was frowning thoughtfully as he returned Jack's gaze. "It seems this partnership will work out quite well, Mr Aubrey."
"I agree, Dr Maturin." Jack nodded vigorously. "Please call me Jack, though."
Maturin took a moment to place his bow in his left hand so he could offer his right to Jack. "And I ask that you call me Stephen."
"This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, Stephen." Jack shook the skinny hand warmly.
A small smile curled Stephen's lips. "And partnership, Jack."