CHAPTER 1 “Another Life”
Veronica didn’t expect that she would agree to a trip to Italy so quickly. She was tired of being under the constant scrutiny of her step-aunt, Henrietta, who was always taking care of her. But what could Veronica expect from the people who had abandoned her as soon as she let out her first cry after she was born? They had left her in a small basket near the shelter. Except that her aunt, who was a distant relative of her parents, took her home with her. She wouldn’t expect anything from her parents. Some people have no sense of responsibility, even towards a life they had created. Responsibility was not in their blood and neither did they need it; just like they didn’t need their own daughter.
Veronica’s aunt had long ago decided that Veronica needed to see the world in a different light, because Veronica’s rose-colored glasses were always concealing the reality from her. She was a dreamy person. So, Henrietta wanted to teach Veronica about real life—to never give up, to be smart and brave when required while facing new experiences and, of course, to be fair to herself.
Having saved some money which she had received from her additional work as a seamstress, Henrietta decided to present Veronica with a trip to a warm sunny country where her relatives lived. Unfortunately, over the years any communication with them had been lost and she didn’t cherish hopes of arranging her niece’s stay at their place. But Henrietta decided to buy an inexpensive tour around Italy which would let Veronica enjoy the true nature of the country.
Veronica Ledyanova was specializing in fashion design in her penultimate year at the university, because in her early childhood she had always liked to draw various sketches of clothes for men and women. While she was studying with the money that her aunt had saved over years of painstaking work at the chocolate factory, she was running from the impenetrable reality. Peers and classmates always snubbed and teased her, because she was an offspring without kith or kin. However, whenever she came from the university in tears, her aunt immediately understood what was going on behind the walls of the prestigious institution—constant insults and misunderstandings from Veronica’s so called friends from the university.
Henrietta never wanted to limit Veronica from doing whatever she wanted. She was very attached to Veronica, despite her abrasive character. Henrietta loved her like her own daughter and Veronica certainly understood how much she owed her aunt. That brave and kind fifty-five year old woman had been raising Veronica over the years.
Though Henrietta wasn’t her real family, she was the closest person to her in the whole world. Not only because they knew each other’s habits and characters so well, but also because a full understanding had developed between them over the years and they were willing to go any length for each other at any time.
As usual, Veronica returned home from the university and sighed with relief knowing that she would soon be away from her classmates who constantly abused her. She would go to a completely different country, unknown to her, in search of new emotions. But the fear of the unknown reality overcame Veronica. She had never travelled and it roused a strange anxiety in her soul. But Veronica was pulled by the desire to see the lives of people of another country which was different from hers.
Looking out the window of her bedroom, where she always cherished her loneliness, Veronica didn’t notice her aunt walk in, smiling slightly and looking at her only protégée.
“What are you thinking about, my love?” Henrietta asked her, leaning against the wall.
“I was thinking… What is life in Italy like? What are the people there like?” Veronica replied calmly, although she was very nervous inside.
“I think everything there is similar to here; maybe life is just a little bit different from ours. But you have nothing to worry about, sweetheart. I have booked a group tour around Italy, so you won’t be alone and you will travel everywhere with the group. But always stay near the guide and be careful not to get lost.”
“I’m not a little girl, Aunt. I’m twenty-three years old. I know how abroad trips are organized. I’m not as stupid as you think I am!” Veronica raised the tone of her voice, but felt that maybe she shouldn’t have done that.
“The features of your contentious temper are showing out again, Veronica. Could you say it in a more polite tone?” Aunt Henrietta knitted her brows, listening to her niece impatiently.
“Sorry.” She suddenly broke off. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I know you too well to be offended by such things.” The woman replied. “However, you have to rein in on your temper. What if some young man you meet doesn’t like it?” Henrietta rebuked Veronica’s difficult personality.
“Nonsense! I don’t need anyone except you, Aunt.” Veronica admitted, turning away from the window and coming closer to her aunt to hug her gently.
“That’s all fine.” Henrietta smiled. “But you need a family and a husband who will take care of you when I’m gone.”
“Stop talking like that. You will live forever. Mark my words!”
“I wish I could believe it, my girl. But life goes on and I’m growing old. You need a man whom you can rely on in your life, someone who will lead you on the way to his heart, holding hands and whispering words of love in your ear.”
“Sometimes it seems to me like it’s you who has rose-colored glasses on your nose, not me.” Veronica chuckled. “Who will want to marry a girl like me, who doesn’t have any family?”
“You think too badly of yourself, dear. You have a pure heart and a good soul. What else does a man need? The rest, you will learn as you grow up.” Her aunt winked boldly at Veronica.
“Aunt Henrietta.” Veronica flushed. “What does that mean?”
“Everyone thinks to the extent of their own depravity.” Aunt Henrietta said, looking at Veronica with her chaste eyes, surprised by the modesty of her protégée.
“You’re such a clever woman.” Veronica teased her with a smile, blinking her brown oriental eyes.
“Oh yeah, I am!” Henrietta laughed in response. “I’ve always been like this, even when I was young and innocent and having met the man of my life. But your uncle passed away too early and my life changed. Now I live only for you.”
“I know. I wish your husband was with you.” She replied dejectedly. She knew how lonely her aunt was in life without a companion.
“It wasn’t meant to be.” Henrietta said, her eyes filling with rogue tears. Her husband was everything to Henrietta.
Seeing that she might have upset her aunt, Veronica took her hand in hers, “Aunt Henrietta, you’ll be happy. I believe it.”
She thanked Veronica tenderly, touching her cheek. “But enough of all this sweet talk. Why are you not ready yet?”
“What do you mean?” Veronica asked.
“I mean that your flight to Rome is in five hours. Have you forgotten?” Henrietta was a little angry at her carelessness and wanted to see Veronica be more responsible about her prompt trip.
“Oh my gosh! I absolutely don’t notice the time when I’m here.” Veronica whispered, bearing in mind that she had always felt peaceful and relaxed in her room, in her own dream world which she had created for herself.
“Veronica, have you packed everything for the trip?”
“There is very little left. You know my wardrobe is not very impressive. I have nothing to boast of.” Veronica said sadly.
“Sweetheart, beauty is not just limited to appearance. It also lies in a sharp mind, unlimited energy and a golden heart; you have all the beautiful qualities a young lady must possess.” Her aunt said, caressing her long hair and smiling widely.
“I’m not sure if I will ever find a husband.”
“When you expect the least, fate will show you the way, my darling. My intuition has never let me down, my dear.” Henrietta supported Veronica with all her kindness. “Before I forget to mention, I have an evening shift today and my boss didn’t excuse me from work. Hope you won’t be offended that you have to go alone, my dear?” Henrietta asked Veronica.
“No, I won’t be.” Veronica convinced her aunt. “You are a busy and hardworking person, unlike me, who just takes long lonely walks all the time.”
“Don’t say that. When you finish your education and have your favorite profession, you will win many hearts with your talent. I have no doubts.”
“You believe in me so much that I won’t be able to step back now! I will fight!” She said with a sense of gratitude, trusting her aunt.
“You will be able to flourish in the world of fashion! I feel it.”
Veronica didn’t want to detain her aunt any longer; she had come for a snack and a short rest. Soon she would have to go to her second job, which definitely gave her significant earnings, because seamstresses were needed everywhere.
Upset because of the circumstances, Henrietta only said, “Veronica, I have to warn you. Be very careful in the foreign country. Your naivety can be taken advantage of, especially by men. So I’m giving you this, just in case.”
She took a pepper-spray out of her trousers and held it out to Veronica.
“Do you really think I will need this?” Veronica asked, surprised.
“Anything can happen. You are going alone and I won’t be able to protect you there. But fear will not help me. I have decided you should blow away the cobwebs and see a new world. This will do you good, Veronica. The classes at the university have ended, the holidays have begun and nothing is keeping you here in St. Petersburg anymore.”
“It is you who is keeping me here.” She gently kissed her aunt on the cheek.
“Sweetie, let’s not give ourselves in to our emotions. You must go; otherwise I really won’t let you go away from under my skirt. In this case, trousers.”
They both burst out laughing. But realizing the seriousness of the situation, they hugged each other firmly as if they were saying goodbye forever.
“You know my cell phone number. Call me in case of any emergency. I will always be in touch.” Having given her niece a rewarding motherly embrace, Henrietta moved away from Veronica.
“Thanks, Aunt. I will never be able to repay for all that you have done for me and what you keep doing.”
Henrietta sincerely laughed. “You can’t wait to get away from my clutches.”
“That thought might have crossed my mind.” Veronica smiled at her. “But in my heart, it’s not so. I love you very much and I always will.”
“And I love you, my dear. Okay, go now. It’s really time to get ready!” Her aunt said strictly and Veronica felt that it was indeed time to leave. Rushing and throwing in light summer clothes from the wardrobe into her bag, she also put in two of her warm jumpers and a pair of ankle boots in case it was cold and Italy wouldn’t welcome her with a warm weather.
Henrietta was looking at the girl she had patronized for twenty-three years and thought how quickly the years had passed. It seemed that it was only yesterday when she took the baby from the shelter and Veronica announced with her cries that she will seize every opportunity she gets to live in this world. The baby was so cute and fragile; she had become an integral part of Henrietta’s life and filled it with joy and happiness.
But now Veronica was flying away to another country so far away that her aunt couldn’t watch her and know that she was absolutely safe. But Henrietta had to let her go.
“I have ordered a taxi for you.” Henrietta told Veronica, while she was packing and then combing her unmanageable blond curls, standing before the oval shaped mirror.
“Why do you need to spend so much?” She reproached her aunt.
“Because I want to.” Raising her head proudly, the woman said. “Moreover, I will know that you’ll get safely to the airport.”
“Aunt Henrietta.” Veronica interrupted her. “A taxi is not very safe either.”
“My good and close friend will give you a lift. He is sixty years old.” The woman laughed, knowing what worried her niece, Veronica.
“What I really cannot understand is where your links are from.”
“They just remained after my husband.” Henrietta announced, remembering her late spouse.
But remembering that it was time for her niece to hit the road, she added quickly, “I don’t want to feel sad about my past anymore, darling. Go fast! I am so worried about you being late for the flight. There could be setbacks any time; traffic jams or the car can be delayed on the way. You know we live in a big city.”
“Okay, my dear aunt.” She agreed, hugging firmly the closest and dearest person she ever had. Veronica wished her all the best.
Suddenly the intercom rang. Henrietta immediately knew; it was the taxi for Veronica.
“Wait!” She exclaimed, running quickly into her room. She returned in a minute with a piece of paper. “It is my relatives’ address in Rome. If you happen to have some spare time, find them. I am not very sure, but they must have left for the Galapagos Islands. But if they haven’t, you could meet them. They are very pleasant people. I haven’t had the time to inform them that you are flying to Rome. Everything has turned out to be so spontaneous and unexpected, as you know. Your trip to Europe wasn’t planned in advance.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll try to find them if I have some free time. But I think you understand that these little excursions in my schedule will make my days fully occupied.”
“I know, but take it.” Henrietta stretched the piece of paper to her and Veronica nodded.
“Take care of yourself.” Henrietta said in a trembling voice, feeling a lump rising in her throat and tears welling in her eyes.
“For your sake alone, I’ll be cautious.” Veronica promised, hugging her firmly.
“My golden girl.” Henrietta whispered, and unable to hold it in, she turned back. She gestured to Veronica to pay no attention to her face which was covered with tears.
Feeling that she herself was at the edge of tears, Veronica took her bags quickly and left the apartment, walking down the stairs from the first floor without calling the lift.
Outside, Veronica immediately saw an old man near the taxi, dressed in a strict dark grey suit. He was standing next to a black Audi, smoking a cigarette and throwing ashes beside him. When he noticed Veronica, the man straightened up immediately, throwing away the cigarette butt into the ballot box and stretching out his hand to the girl. Veronica shook his hand, and the man smiled, opening the door for her and then putting her stuff into the boot of the car.
“Where are you going, lovely lady?” The stranger asked, turning on the ignition of his Audi and waiting for the girl’s answer. Veronica smiled slightly at his words.
“Okay.” He replied calmly, moving from the block of flats where Veronica lived and wedging into the flow of the numerous amounts of passenger cars. They were driving down the street so fast that Veronica didn’t even realize how they happened to be on the crossroads of the street or the next avenue. The car was already headed towards the airport.
Suddenly a mobile phone rang with a Spanish ringtone. The man picked up the phone.
“Yes... It’s me, Hettie. She is with me, and I am driving with caution. How many times will you repeat it? God dammit, your little girl is already twenty-three and you’re worried about her as if she is a one-year-old child!” The man answered sharply.
Veronica giggled. She was not the only one getting tired of the excessive control of her beloved aunt.
“Dear...” Veronica could hear his voice more clearly; his tone was getting emotional. “I understand, but you have to set her free now. The girl is completely intimidated by your upbringing.”
After muttering something indistinctly in Spanish to the woman, he put the phone down and nervously drummed his fingers on the wheel of the car. Veronica smiled. Even a man like this could be driven berserk by her aunt.
“Is it true that she has got to you too?” She asked the taxi driver boldly.
“No doubt!” The man rapped out the words. “Her control is spread not only over you, but over me as well. ‘Don’t wear this! Wear that! Come here! Don’t go there!’ Are all women like that? Do you know what she told me?”
Veronica suppressed a chuckle. “What?”
“She told me that if I drove like crazy and if I wasn’t careful on the road, she would keep me from having dinner in the evening!” He broke out. His temper was too uncontrollable, especially when talking to Henrietta Ledyanova.
“I see.” Veronica replied with a smile, knowing her aunt’s temper so well. “But don’t worry. My aunt is always like that when it comes to people who she loves very much.”
“I have noticed it.” His heart softened. He felt that it was unnecessary to be so fulminating. “Excuse me. I haven’t introduced myself yet. Your aunt will churn my brains.”
“Oh, for sure…” She snorted in response to his complaints.
“My name is Ricardo.”
Is my aunt dating a Spaniard? Although Ricardo spoke in broken Russian, he had a great way of talking and almost without an accent.
“I didn’t expect my aunt to be dating a man from another country.” Veronica said, breaking the silence.
“I can understand. I’m half Spaniard. And don’t be shy dear. I’m too old for you to be embarrassed by me.” Ricardo told her with a playful smile.
Veronica laughed brightly, as the tension in their conversation was gone completely.
“What do you mean by half-Spaniard?” Veronica asked.
“My mother was Russian. My father was a Spaniard. Our family lived both in Spain and in Russia while I was a little boy. When I grew up, I moved to Russia all by myself.” Ricardo said ruefully about his past.
“Why do you say they were?”
And Veronica realized that she had asked too much. She was always tactful, but this time she couldn’t resist. But Ricardo continued, “They were, because they died a long time ago; about twenty years ago. My father had to do business far away and my mother agreed to that. But she couldn’t bear the separation from my dad, and she died three years later. I thought that people never died from longing for their beloved. But they do... if their love is too strong.”
“I’m sorry.” Veronica apologized, having listened to the little confession from Ricardo, “I didn’t mean to reopen old wounds.”
“Never mind.” He said. “Everything passes.”
After that conversation they rode in silence until they saw Pulkovo airport. On arrival, Ricardo unloaded Veronica’s baggage and carried the heavy bags like they weighed lighter than fluff.
So elderly and yet he is still a cheerful guy! Veronica thought and immediately imagined how nice it would be if her aunt and the Spaniard got married soon. But she didn’t say it out loud.
“Thank you.” Veronica told him gratefully, shaking his tanned muscular hand.
“It has been a pleasure so far, darling. I still need to make sure that you’ve got on the flight okay. Otherwise, your aunt will rip my head off, and eat it for breakfast.”
“You’re funny. I think that’s why my aunt likes you so much.”
“Has Henrietta said anything about me?” Realizing that he would be able to hear the truth about himself, the Spaniard roused instantly.
“A little bit. She said you were her closest friend and a really good one.” Veronica said sincerely.
“Nothing more?” Ricardo asked her disappointedly.
“I think she will tell you more herself later.”
He laughed in response. “You two are so similar. I would never think that she is your step-aunt.” Ricardo suddenly stopped. He had said too much as well, just like Veronica did. “Forgive me, dear. I didn’t mean to upset you.” He continued, but Veronica instantly interrupted him.
“It’s alright, because it’s true. I have to live with it and remember that I’ll never have a normal family. I’ll always be alone.” Veronica sniffled on her unshed tears like a little girl.
“That’s not true.” Ricardo convinced her and held her shoulders. “You have an aunt. She’s your family. And maybe, I’ll be your uncle, as a bonus.”
Laughing at his words, Veronica relaxed and her pain suddenly retreated. The Spaniard had a talent to improve her mood with his jokes.
It was time to fly. Veronica and Ricardo both made their way slowly inside the airport.
Veronica wanted to leave already, but Ricardo suddenly took her hand and said, “Never try to be under someone’s thumb, neglecting your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that you don’t care if you feel pain. When it comes to this, remember my words. Believe me, Veronica, and listen to yourself. Never change your desires or you will suffer greatly. My parents who died from loneliness can serve you as an example. Sorry for this confession, but I wanted to tell you this because I see that you are a good person and deserve only the best. You must know everything about life.”
“Thank you, Ricardo. Sorry, I don’t know your surname.”
“And you don’t have to. Just Ricardo is fine.” The man smiled, showing his white teeth, which was in contrast with his tanned skin.
He was probably real handsome and as caring as now in his younger days. So, Aunt Henrietta has found her safety and peace in him. Veronica thought. Now I have nothing to be afraid of and I can fly with a calm heart, knowing that my aunt is protected by a real man, ready to stand up for her anytime.
“Bye.” She shook Ricardo’s hand again and picked up her bags with both hands.
“Shall I help you?” He asked, noticing that the bags were heavy for her to carry.
“I can handle them myself. Thank you very much for your help and take care of my aunt.” Veronica told him accidentally and was suddenly embarrassed by her own sincerity.
“Sure. You, above all, take care of yourself.” He patted her on the shoulder. “I would give you my knife for protection, but you wouldn’t pass through the metal detector then.”
“It’s okay. I’ll be fine. Don’t turn into my aunt.”
Ricardo chuckled nervously at her joke. “I wouldn’t be able to. Your aunt is original in her essence. But girl, please be careful in the foreign country. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you too.”
Waving to Ricardo, Veronica went to the check-in counter and that’s when the cell phone rang in his pocket. Of course, it was Henrietta. Who else could it be?
“Is Veronica doing well? Have you seen her to the check-in counter? Have you seen her on to her plane?” She was talking a mile a minute.
“Yes darling, don’t worry. She has already been given a boarding pass.”
“Thank you, my hot man.” Henrietta sung, slightly teasing him.
“It’s not very nice of you to tease me, Hettie, when I’m so far away from you. I can do something with you when I get back though.” Ricardo answered in a passionate soft tone.
“You are absolutely shameless! Go back to your work and in the evening your dinner will be waiting for you. You get nothing unless you listen to what I say.” Henrietta warned him.
“What do you mean by nothing?” The Spaniard asked her, alert as a hawk.
“Guess it, Ricardo.” Henrietta played a cunning game.
“When I come home, I will punish you!” Ricardo raised his eyebrows, ready for the battle for Henrietta’s heart and her soul. He was full of strength to win the woman, despite how old he was. After all, it was how young a man felt, not how old he looked that mattered.
Henrietta hollered. “Oh, just you wait! I have something for you too, my passionate Spaniard!” She finished, changing the tone of her voice to a more tempting one. She loved his words, his riot of energy, as though he wasn’t sixty, but still in his sweet twenties.
“Passionate Lady.” Ricardo whispered into his phone and hung up.
Waking up from the dreams of her Spaniard, Henrietta got back to sewing on the machine again. The dress was becoming more and more elegant and lovely. The woman could work wonders with these things, but she already missed her Veronica.