CHAPTER ONE 

Veronica Ballard stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant clutching the ring box, passersby throwing quizzical glances in her direction as they pushed past her en route to their evening’s entertainment. She didn’t need a mirror to know she looked a fright, tears and stage makeup funneling down her face to stain the neckline of her cream-colored sweater. At least she wasn’t ruining her costume. But she’d had to leave that purple taffeta extravaganza behind at the Opera House for the next time the company mounted Don Giovanni. Chances were good that next time, too, she would be singing a minor soprano’s role.

Then again... perhaps at last her life was changing.

As the chilly San Francisco night swirled around her, Veronica glanced at the ring box and considered the airmail letter inside her handbag, which had shown up in her mailbox that very morning.

It couldn’t be coincidence that she received those two extraordinary items just hours apart. It had to be a sign of something. No one who believed in destiny as fiercely as she did could think anything else.

Again Veronica opened the box that cradled the ring; again she touched the green-colored gemstone in the shape of a heart set between golden hands and capped by a crown. It can’t be a genuine emerald, she concluded, no one would give that to a stranger; though just as that idea settled in her mind a sort of shimmer seemed to course through the gemstone, as if daring her to deny its authenticity.

 “Veronica?” a male voice called behind her.

She spun around. It was Dominik, the bad-boy tenor from Budapest with the carefully disheveled blond hair, famous for cutting a swath through the ranks of the sopranos in every production in which he appeared.

“Are you all right?” he asked in his lightly accented voice. “We’re all worried about you.”

Even among opera singers, who embraced drama every chance they got, Veronica’s bursting into tears, fleeing a restaurant table, and nearly toppling two busboys on her way out the door was histrionic behavior.

Veronica stuffed the ring box in her handbag, not wanting to have to explain that, too. “I’m sorry. Here we all are to celebrate our final performance, and I have a meltdown.”

“Forget about the celebration.” Dominik edged still closer. “It’s you I’m worried about.”

Veronica watched Dominik switch on his legendary charm. This time he didn’t bother to say we’re worried, and she could guess why. No doubt he was thinking there was still time to make her one of his conquests. Dominik was far from boyfriend material, though her boyfriends were always other opera singers or musicians. (And once a conductor, though that had earned her some grief.) Who else would they be? Those were the men she spent time with, the men she got to know. More than that, they were as unmoored and peripatetic as she was. They understood her life because they lived it, too.

“Are you worried about Florence?” Dominik went on. “You shouldn’t be, you know. You’ll be wonderful.”

Indeed she was petrified about the new role in Italy but not for the reasons Dominik assumed. “It’s all happening so fast,” she told him.

Dominik was only inches away. It had to be said: Those hazel eyes of his were mesmerizing. Maybe she’d been wrong to keep him at arm’s length. How odd that for once she’d been cautious.

Now she let herself speak freely. “The thing is, I received a letter from my birth mother. This morning.” Even though she heard the words come out of her mouth she still couldn’t quite believe them. “The first one ever.”

Dominik frowned. “Birth mother?” he repeated, and Veronica realized she’d reached the limits of his excellent English.

“I’m adopted. From Russia.”

His brows flew up in shock. “You’re Russian?”

“Sort of. My parents adopted me and brought me here to the Bay Area when I was only a few months old.”

Understanding dawned. “Oh, I see. Birth mother. I see.” He nodded. “I see how you could be Russian,” he added, and Veronica knew what he meant. The blond hair, the fair skin, the blue eyes: She was a facsimile of Julie Christie’s Lara in Dr. Zhivago, though nowhere near so beautiful.

“I’ve been writing to my birth mother for years,” Veronica went on. “Well, I write a letter and a contact in Moscow translates it and sends it on to her.”

And every time Veronica’s contact forwarded her the return receipt, proving the letter had reached its intended recipient.

“But after all these years,” she added, “this is the first time she’s ever written to me.”

“Wow! Amazing. After all this time.”

Veronica’s parents would be seriously distraught to hear that this time their precious daughter got a response. Which was why so far she’d kept this stunning development to herself.

From the first, her parents had been forthcoming about her adoption. Even as a small child she remembered fingering the yellowing documents from the orphanage that told the melancholy tale of how her birth father was largely absent and her birth mother couldn’t afford to feed yet another mouth. So many times during her childhood Veronica had pored over the photos of her parents’ epic trip to Moscow, separated into Before and After they claimed their infant treasure. The Before photos were a travelogue: St. Basil’s Cathedral, with its whimsical bonnet of crayon-colored onion domes; the neoclassical majesty of the Bolshoi Theatre; the brooding hulk of the Kremlin. Baby Veronica was the star of the After photos: sitting in a borrowed high chair in a nondescript hotel room, baby food everywhere but in her mouth; in a sink awaiting a bath, naked and howling; swaddled in blankets to sleep in a suitcase, no crib for a bed. She grew up hearing that her parents, well past the bloom of youth when she came into their lives, had “picked her out special.” Russia hardly provided a beacon of hope for Americans in those days—or now—but it had for Georgette and Ed Ballard, whose adored Veronica was the only child they would ever call their own.

It was with exquisite guilt that Veronica first inquired how they would feel if she tried to contact her birth mother. By then she was out of college and taking her first steps toward a career in opera. Something in her had to know where she came from. With her past a virtual blank she’d spun so many wild scenarios in her mind; she longed to know if any of them were close to true. So often she fantasized that her birth parents were the source of her wondrous voice. Maybe one of them was even an opera singer. By that point she understood that such a gift rarely translated into riches—not even in the U.S. or Europe, so she wouldn’t expect it in Russia.

To this day she cringed recalling her parents’ shocked silence when she first brought up the topic. Bad as it was, their silence was easier to take than their pained acquiescence, and infinitely preferable to the muffled sobs she heard that night through the thin wall that separated their bedroom from her own.

Now Dominik peered at her closely. “I understand why it would make you cry to hear from your birth mother.”

“It’s not just that she wrote me. I mean, yes, that’s part of it, but that’s not all of it.” Veronica’s voice caught. “It’s what she wrote me.” This part she wished she didn’t have to say. “She wrote that she’s dying.”

“Oh my God,” Dominik breathed.

Veronica burst into fresh tears. Dominik took that as an opportunity to bundle her into his arms.

Every time she thought about the letter, she could scarcely believe it. All these years—How many now? Ten? Twelve?—she’d hoped against hope that someday something more than a return receipt would show up in her mailbox. Finally it did and it said this. Maybe it was true what people said, to be careful what you wish for.

Even though she was sobbing, Veronica kept going. “She wants me to come to Moscow to meet her. And it has to be soon because she could die any time.”

“Really? She wrote that?”

Dominik didn’t say anything more but she knew what he was thinking. She was thinking it herself. All of this was so surreal it seemed almost staged, like an opera. A tragic opera. Complete with ticking clock.

Veronica banished those thoughts. She pulled back. “I’ve made you a mess now, too.” She found a tissue in her handbag and dabbed ineffectually at his black sweater, stained not only with her tears but also a splotchy mess of mascara and stage makeup. “Thanks to me you don’t look ready for a cast party, either.”

“Maybe you’d feel better if we did something quiet at my apartment, just the two of us.” Dominik eyed her steadily. “And then we wouldn’t have to say goodbye quite so soon.”

Even without the pangs of lost romance, there were so many goodbyes in what they did. Nothing lasted. The curtain went down on relationships just the way it did on productions. And love them or hate them, you never knew when you would see these people again, these people you had worked with, sometimes lived with, for months. It might be the next opera or it might be never again in your life.

Thinking about nothing lasting nearly launched Veronica on another crying jag. But she managed to stave it off. “I better just go. My flight to Italy is tonight and I don’t have much time to get ready. But I should go back inside to say my goodbyes.”

“Let me at least drive you to the airport.”

He wouldn’t take no for an answer, not that she fought him very hard. So it was that a few hours later she sat in Dominik’s rented car, showered and changed, passport and boarding pass in hand, luggage in his trunk, and mystery ring in her handbag. She wouldn’t examine that further until she was alone.

“Thank you so much for driving me,” she told Dominik, wondering if there was any chance he was more considerate than she’d given him credit for.

“No problem. I can practice the route for tomorrow. And maybe I’ll drive to Florence to see you,” he added.

“You can’t do that! It’s too far.”

“It’s less than a thousand kilometers from Budapest.”

“That’s still a nine hour drive. At least.” She’d sung in enough operas in Europe to understand that.

“What do they say in English? You’re worth it.”

She had to laugh. “I bet you say that to all the sopranos.”

“No! With you I really mean it.”

He probably owned a lovely bridge she should consider buying, too. She hadn’t misjudged Dominik after all, Veronica decided. His seduction scheme had failed in San Francisco but clearly he was ready to give it another whirl in Tuscany.

He spoke again. “You better be careful with your birth mother, Veronica.”

She stiffened.

He went on. “I mean, she writes you that she’s dying so you have to fly to Russia right away? It makes me think of those fake emails from Nigeria.”

“It’s not like that at all.” Veronica heard the defiance in her tone. It was not for Dominik to say these things, a man who had never met her birth mother and never would. “It’s perfectly natural for her to want to meet the child she was forced to give away before she dies.”

He waited a bit before he spoke again. And when he did, his tone was much milder. “What does she know about you?”

By now, quite a bit. Veronica had been cagey in her early letters, as she’d been counseled. But her words flowed more freely with every letter she wrote. She’d sent photos, too. And once a CD recording of what she considered her best performance.

Now Dominik’s little rented car was speeding south on the freeway. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the airport. “Does she know you’re an opera singer?” he pressed.

“You and I both know that doesn’t mean I’m rich.”

He laughed. “We know that, yes.”

Many opera singers flirted with the poverty line. Not Dominik, because of his looks; and not Veronica, who was hardly a star but had been fortunate. She even made enough money to rent an apartment in the heart of San Francisco, though only because she shared it with two other women.

Again Dominik laughed. “Does your birth mother know you’re not fat?”

“That must mean I’m a failure as an opera singer. So she can’t want money.”

Dominik dropped the topic after that, no doubt sensing she’d had enough. They chatted about trivialities as he drove the last few miles to the airport, where the international terminal was abuzz.

The moment came to say goodbye. “You’ll be able to sleep on the flight,” he told her.

She doubted that. Not after everything that had happened that day.

Dominik made a move to embrace her but she outmaneuvered him and kissed both his cheeks in that European way. She watched him step back with disappointed eyes and bet he wouldn’t be making that nine-hour drive after all.

As Veronica went in search of her check-in area, she thought again of the ring in her handbag. Judging from what the dark-haired woman had told her, it had something to do with Ireland. How ironic that the Florentine opera company had booked her to fly Aer Lingus to Dublin, of all bizarre routings, before they had her continue on to London and then Rome.

It wasn’t because the Irish national airline was cheaper, Veronica decided, and opera companies always chose the cheapest routings for their Not Quite Stars. It was Fate sending her yet another sign.



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