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
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
“Veronica?” a male voice called behind
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
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
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
“Sort of. My parents adopted me and
brought me here to the Bay Area when I was only a few months
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
“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
“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
“Oh my God,” Dominik breathed.
Veronica burst into fresh tears.
Dominik took that as an opportunity to bundle her into his
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
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,”
“You can’t do that! It’s too far.”
“It’s less than a thousand kilometers
“That’s still a nine hour drive. At
least.” She’d sung in enough operas in Europe to understand
“What do they say in English? You’re
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.”
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
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
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
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.