Chapter 1. "Another Life".
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Veronica didn’t expect herself to agree to a trip to Italy so quickly. Yeah, what the hell? She was tired of being under the scrutiny of her step-aunt, who was always taking care of her instead of her parents, who were distant relatives of Henrietta Ledyanova. But what could Veronica expect from the people who abandoned her as soon as she let out her first cry after the birth, and left her, quite little, in a small basket near the shelter, except her aunt who took her home? Actually, she couldn’t expect anything. Some people have no sense of responsibility even towards a life they have created. Apparently, responsibility was not in their blood, and neither did they need it, just like their own daughter.
Veronica’s aunt had long ago decided that she 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 the real life: to never give up, to be smart, and to be brave when required by new experiences, and of course, to be fair to herself.
Having saved some money, which she received from her additional work as a seamstress, Henrietta decided to present Veronica with a trip to a warm sunny country, where Henrietta’s relatives lived. Unfortunately, over the years any communication with them had been lost, and she didn’t cherish hopes to arrange for her niece’s stay at their place. But Henrietta decided to buy an inexpensive tour around Italy, that Veronica could take pleasure in the nature of the country.
While Veronica was studying at the university for the money that her aunt had saved over the years of painstaking work at the chocolate factory, she was running from the impenetrable reality. Peers and classmates always snubbed and teased her, because the girl was an offspring without kith or kin. Although when was Veronica worried about what people thought of her? Never. However, seeing as she came from the university in tears, her aunt immediately understood what was going on behind the walls of the prestigious educational institution: constant insults and misunderstandings from the Veronica’s friends at the same faculty (Veronica Ledyanova was in her penultimate year specializing in fashion design, because in her early childhood she had always liked to draw various sketches of men and women clothes).
Henrietta never wanted to limit Veronica in anything. She was very attached to Veronica, despite her abrasive character: the girl didn’t like when the aunt taught her the truth of life. But Henrietta still loved Veronica like her own daughter, and Veronica certainly understood how much she owed to her aunt. That brave and kind woman of about fifty-five, whose hair had been slightly silvered with grey, had been raising Veronica over the years. Though Henrietta wasn’t a family person, she was the closest person to her in the whole world. Not only because they had already known the habits and character of each other so well, but also because full understanding had been developed them over the years and they were willing to help each other at any time.
Veronica and Henrietta were almost like sisters, despite the significant difference in age.
As usual, Veronica returned home from the university and sighed with relief, knowing that she would soon have a rest from her classmates, who constantly abused her. She would go to a completely different country, unknown to her, to get new emotions. But the fear of the unknown reality overcame Veronica. She had never travelled, and it roused a strange kind of anxiety in her soul. But Veronica was attracted by the desire to see lives of people of another country which was different from hers.
Looking for a long time out of the window of her bedroom, where she always loved to feel her loneliness, Veronica didn’t notice when her aunt walked in, smiling slightly and looking at her only protégée.
“What are you thinking about, my love?” Henrietta asked her, standing against the wall.
“So I thought... What is life in Italy like? What are people there like?” Veronica replied calmly, although internally she felt very nervous.
“I think everything there is like we have, maybe life is a 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 a group. Most importantly, be careful and always stay near the guide, then you’ll never get lost in this sunny country,” her aunt noted.
“Aunt, I’m not a little girl. And if I’m twenty-three years old, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything about how trips abroad are organized. I’m not as stupid as you might think!”
“The features of your contentious temper are seen again, Veronica. Could you say it in a more polite tone?”
“Sorry,” the girl 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 your temper. What if a young man you will meet doesn’t like it?”
“Nonsense! I don’t need anyone except you, aunt,” Veronica said, turning from the window and coming closer to the woman to hug her gently.
“It’s fine,” Henrietta burst out laughing. “But you need a family and a husband who will take care of you when I’m gone....”
“Stop talking like that.” Veronica uttered her angrily, realizing that her aunt was absolutely right, “you will live forever. Mark my words!”
“I wish I could believe in it, my girl, but life goes on and I grow old. You need a man to rely on in your life, a man who will lead you on the way to his heart, holding hands and whispering words of love in your ear.”
“It seems to me sometimes that it’s you who has rose-colored glasses on your nose, not me,” Veronica chuckled. “Who will want to marry such a girl like me, without kith or kin? Answer me.”
“You think badly about yourself, dear. You have a pure heart and a good soul. What else might a man need? The rest you will learn as you grow up....” The woman winked boldly at Veronica.
“Aunt,” Veronica noticed, flushing. “What are you thinking about?”
“I don’t know what you have thought of... but everyone thinks to the extent of his depravity,” aunt Henrietta uttered, looking at Veronica with chaste eyes, surprising by the modesty of her protégée.
“You’re such a clever woman!” Veronica teased her, blinking her brown oriental eyes.
“Oh, yeah.” Henrietta laughed in response. “I’ve always been like this, even when I was young and innocent, having met the man of my life. But your uncle passed away too early and my life changed. Now I live only for you and you know it.”
“I know,” the girl replied dejectedly, realizing how lonely her aunt was in life without a companion. “I wish that your husband was with you.”
“Apparently, it wasn’t meant to be….” Henrietta said, feeling that her eyes were filling with tears deceitfully.
Realizing that she had upset her aunt, Veronica took her by the hand, “Aunt Henrietta, you’ll be happy. I believe in it.”
“Thank you, my darling,” the woman thanked Veronica tenderly, touching her cheek. “But enough of the lyrics. Why are you still not ready?”
“In what sense?” the girl gave a start.
“In the sense that your flight to Rome is in five hours. Have you forgotten?” Henrietta was a little angry at the carelessness of her protégée.
“So soon… I absolutely don’t notice the time when I’m here,” Veronica whispered, bearing in mind that she had always felt peaceful, relaxed and happy in her room, being in the atmosphere of dreams, which she created herself.
“Yes, indeed. Have you packed everything for the trip?”
“Almost. There is very little left. You know, aunt, my wardrobe is not great,” the girl said sadly. “I have nothing to boast of....”
“Sweetheart, beauty just don’t limit to appearance, it also means a sharp mind, unlimited energy and a golden heart and you have all the beautiful qualities what young lady must possess,” her aunt said caressing her long hair and smiling widely at assuring on her beauty.
“I’m not sure if I will ever find a husband.”
“When you expect the least, fate will show you the way, my darling.”
“I hope you’re right,” Veronica smiled at the comment of her dear aunt, nodding approvingly.
“My intuition has never let me down, my dear. Before I forget to mention, today I have an evening shift, and unfortunately, my boss doesn’t excuse me from work, although I want to see you I want to see you off to the airport. Hope you won’t be offended, if you go alone, my dear?” Henrietta asked Veronica, being upset that she couldn’t stay longer with her protégée.
“No, I won’t,” Veronica convinced her aunt. “You are an engaged and hardworking person unlike me who takes long lonely walks.”
“Don’t say so. When you receive your education and have your favorite profession, you will win all hearts with your talent. I have no doubts.”
“Aunt, you believe in me so infinitely that I won’t be able to step back!” the girl uttered with a sense of gratitude.
“You will be able to create a furore in the world of fashion! I feel it.”
Veronica didn’t want to detain her aunt any longer, because Veronica knew that the woman had come for a snack and a short rest. Soon she would have to go to her second job, which gave her definite significant earnings, as seamstresses were needed everywhere.
Being upset because of the circumstances, Henrietta only said, “Veronica, I want to warn you. Be very careful in a foreign country. Your naivety can be taken advantage of, especially by men. So, I give you this. Just in case.”
The woman got a pepper-spray ball out of her light trousers and held it out to the girl.
“Do you really think that this will be the case?” Veronica uttered with surprise, having realized what object the woman had given to her.
“Anything can happen. You are going alone, and I won’t be able to protect you. But fear is not my helper if I decided that 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 keeps you anymore in St. Petersburg.”
“It is you who keeps me....” The girl gently kissed her aunt on the cheek.
“Sweetie, let’s not yield ourselves to emotions. You must go, otherwise I really won’t let you go away from 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 saying goodbye forever.
“You know my cell phone. Call me at any emergency. I am always 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 will do.”
“You can’t wait to get rid of my care,” Henrietta sincerely laughed.
“This is only in my thoughts,” Veronica smiled at her, “but in my heart, no. I love you very much and I always will.”
“And I love you, my dear. Okay, go. It’s really time to get ready!” her aunt said strictly and Veronica realized that indeed it was time to leave. Rushing and throwing light summer clothes from the wardrobe into her bag, she also put her two warm jumpers and a pair of ankle boots, in case it was cold and Italy wouldn’t delight 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 yesterday when she took the baby from the shelter, and Veronica announced with her crying that she will seize on every opportunity to live in this world. The baby was so cute and fragile; she has become an integral part of Henrietta’s life and filled it with joy and happiness.
But now Veronica was flying away to another country, very far away; so far that the aunt couldn’t watch her and know that she was absolutely safe.
“I have ordered a taxi for you.” Henrietta told Veronica, while the girl was packing and then combing her unmanageable blond curls.
“So… why spend so much?” the girl reproached her aunt.
“Because I want so!” raising her head proudly, the woman said. “Moreover, I will know that you’re safe and will get to the airport.”
“Aunt,” Veronica interrupted her recitative. “A taxi is also not safe.”
“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 are your links from?”
“They remained after my husband,” Henrietta pronounced sadly, remembering her late spouse.
“Your beloved husband will always be with you,” Veronica assured her, putting her own hand on the shoulder of such a strong, but sometimes also a vulnerable woman.
“I feel it.” Henrietta pronounced quietly. “But I don’t want to feel sad anymore, darling. Go fast! I am so worried about you not being on time for the flight. Anything might set you back, like traffic jams, the car can be delayed on the way. You know, we live in a big city.”
“Okay, my dear aunt,” the girl agreed, hugging firmly the closest and dearest person she had. Suddenly the intercom rang. Henrietta knew immediately that it was a taxi for Veronica.
“Wait!” the woman exclaimed, having run quickly into her room and returning 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 so sure, but they must have left for the Galapagos Islands. But if they haven’t, you will meet them. They are very pleasant people. I haven’t had time to inform them that you are flying to Rome; everything has turned out 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 there is some free time. But I think you understand that such a number of excursions in my schedule will make my days fully occupied.” Veronica was trying not to upset her aunt.
“I know, but still... take it.” Henrietta stretched a sheet, and taking the piece of paper, the girl nodded approvingly.
“Take care of yourself,” Henrietta said in a trembling voice, feeling a lump rising in her throat and tears welling in her eyes.
“Only for the sake of you I’ll be cautious,” Veronica pronounced gently, hugging firmly the good, wonderful woman who loved her so much.
“My golden girl,” Henrietta whispered, and unable to hold in, she turned back and gestured to Veronica to pay no attention to her face, covered with tears.
The girl needs to go to her cherished goal, a trip to Italy.
Realizing that she was at the edge of tears herself, Veronica took her bags quickly and left the apartment, walking down the stairs without calling the lift. Their apartment was on the first floor of a residential building, and there was no sense in going down to the ground floor in the lift cab.
Outside, Veronica immediately saw an old man near the taxi, being dressed in a strict dark grey suit. He was standing next to a black Audi, smoking a cigarette and throwing ashes beside himself. Having noticed Veronica, the man alerted immediately, throwing away a cigarette butt into the ballot box and stretching out the hand to the girl. Veronica also 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, lady?” the stranger asked, turning the ignition switch of his Audi and waiting for the girl’s answer, when Veronica smiled slightly at his words.
“Okay,” he replied calmly, and 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 and the avenue, by which the car already headed towards the airport.
Suddenly a phone rang with a Spanish ringtone in the stranger’s car, and he shuddered nervously. He picked up the phone, trying to bring the thoughts in order. “Yes... It’s me, Hettie. She goes with me, and I drive with caution. Well, how many times can you repeat it!? God dammit, your little girl is already twenty-three years and you’re all worried about her, as if she were a one-year-old child!” the man answered sharply.
Veronica giggled, realizing that she was not alone to get tired of the excessive control of her beloved aunt.
“Dear...” Veronica could hear more clearly the voice of the man, who was speaking on the phone with her aunt, and his tone of voice started getting emotional intensity. “I understand, but still you have to set her free. The girl is completely intimidated with your upbringing!”
Having muttered indistinctly something in Spanish to the woman, he put the phone down, nervously drumming his fingers on the wheel of the car. Veronica smiled, realizing that even
such a man as this stranger, could be driven berserk by her aunt.
“Can it be true that she has set to you too?” the girl asked the taxi driver boldly.
“No doubt!” the man rapped out the words. “Her control is spread not only over your personality, but over mine as well. Don’t put on this, put on that, come here, don’t go there. Are all the women like that? Do you know what she told me?”
Veronica suppressed a chuckle. “What?”
“That if I drove the vehicle like crazy and if I wasn’t careful on the road, she would keep me without dinner in the evening! How do you like it?” the taxi driver sparked off.
“I see.” Veronica replied to him, smiling, knowing her aunt’s temper so well. “But don’t worry. My aunt is always like that, when it comes to people whom she loves very much.”
“I have noticed it.” He calmed down, tempering justice with mercy. “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself yet. Your aunt may turn brain.”
“Oh, for sure…” The girl giggled in response to his complaints.
“My name is Ricardo. And yours?”
Is my aunt dating a Spaniard? Veronica shuddered, judging by the features of the man’s face and remembering his different speech. Although he didn’t speak in broken Russian language, he had a great speech, almost without an accent.
Veronica said, interrupting the silence, “I didn’t expect my aunt to be dating a man from another country.”
“I know that. But you didn’t answer my question,” Ricardo asked her again with a smile.
“My name is Veronica,” she replied, blushing slightly in front of the man.
“Don’t be shy, dear. I’m too old to embarrass you.”
Veronica laughed brightly, when the tension in their conversation was gone.
“Well, you’re not nervous anymore. Really, I hate to think that Hettie keeps you in check.”
“She’s a kind person. Don’t think of her as that of a calculating woman.”
“I wouldn’t think so.” Ricardo assured Veronica. “By the way, as to the origin, don’t be surprised that I’m half Spaniard.”
“How is it, by half?” Veronica stared with astonishment.
“My mother was Russian. My father was a Spaniard. The whole my family lived in Spain and in Russia, while I was a little boy. When I grew up, I moved to Russia all by myself,” Ricardo uttered ruefully.
“Why do you say they were?”
And Veronica realized that she had said too much. She was always tactful, but this time couldn’t resist. But Ricardo continued, “They were, because they died long time ago, about twenty years. My father had to do business at home, and my mother agreed to that. But she couldn’t bear the separation from her husband, and she died three years later. I thought that people never die from longing for the beloved. But they die... if their love is too strong....”
The Spaniard was overwhelmed with memories and became totally sad. He was very fond of his parents. Still is...
“I’m sorry,” Veronica apologized, having listened to a little confession from Ricardo, “I didn’t mean to reopen your old wounds.”
“Never mind,” he growled out. “Everything passes.”
And then they broke off abruptly, riding in silence until they saw Pulkovo airport. On arrival, Ricardo unloaded Veronica’s baggage and picked up the heavy bags as if they weighed lighter than fluff.
So, elderly and he is still a cheerful guy! Veronica thought and imagined immediately how well 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 tanning muscular hand.
“It was a pleasure so far, darling. I still need to make sure that I’ve seen you to the plane and you’re okay. Otherwise, your aunt will rip my head off, and eat it for breakfast.”
Veronica laughed, but soon checked herself quickly.
“Is it funny for you?” sixty-year-old Ricardo asked her, frowning, but at the same time rejoicing something.
“I have never had friends with a dark sense of humor. You’re funny. I think that’s why my aunt likes you.”
“Has Henrietta said anything about me?” realizing that he would be able to hear the truth about himself, the Spaniard roused instantly.
“A bit. She said you were her closest and really good friend.”
“Nothing more?” Ricardo asked her disappointedly.
“I think, she will tell you ‘more’ herself later.”
He only laughed in response. “You are so similar. I would never think that she is your step-aunt.” And Ricardo suddenly stopped, realizing that he said too much. “Forgive me, dear. I didn’t mean to offend you, I’m sorry,” he continued, but Veronica instantly interrupted him.
“It’s all right, because it’s true. I have to live with it and realize that I’ll never have a normal family. I’ll always be alone,” Veronica sniffled like a little girl.
“It is not true,” elderly Ricardo uttered, taking her by her shoulders. “You have an aunt. She’s your family. Well, maybe I’ll be your uncle, as a bonus.”
Laughing at his words, Veronica soon relaxed and her pain suddenly retreated. The Spaniard had a talent to improve her mood with his jokes.
But knowing that it was time to fly, Veronica and Ricardo both made their way slowly inside the airport.
Veronica wanted to leave already, but the man 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 better. You must know everything about life.”
“Thank you, Ricardo. Sorry, I don’t know your surname.”
“And you don’t have to. Just Ricardo.” The man smiled, showing his white teeth, which contrasted with his tanned skin.
Probably, he was damn handsome and as caring as now in his youth. Therefore, aunt Henrietta has found her protection and her female peace in him, Veronica was reasoning. 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 at home.
“Bye.” She was shaking Ricardo’s hand again and picking up her bags with both hands.
“Shall I help you?” the man asked, noticing that the bags were heavy for her to carry.
“I’ll cope with them myself. Thank you very much for your help & take care of my aunt!” Veronica told him accidentally, suddenly being embarrassed with her own sincerity.
“Sure. You, above all, take care of yourself.” He patted her on the shoulder. “I would give you my knife, but you wouldn’t pass through the metal detector then.”
“It’s OK. 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 a foreign country. Good luck.”
“Good luck to you too.”
Waving to Ricardo with her hand, Veronica went to the check-in counter, 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 her plane?” the woman 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 good of you to tease me, Hettie, when I’m so far away from you... I can do something with you when I get back....” Ricardo whispered passionately into his phone.
“You are absolutely shameless! Go back to your work, and in the evening your dinner will be waiting for you. You won’t get anything unless you listen to me.” Henrietta warned him.
“What do you mean saying nothing?” getting alert as a hawk, the Spaniard asked her.
“Guess it, Ricardo,” Henrietta was playing cunning, folding the fabric and thinking how to stitch a seam beautifully.
“When I come home, I will punish you!” Ricardo raised his eyebrows, ready for the battle for Henrietta’s heart. He was full of strength to win the woman, though his body wasn’t young, but his soul was. After all, it was how young the person felt, not how old he looked, that mattered.
“Oh, just you wait! I have something for you too, my passionate Spaniard,” Henrietta told him, 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 twenty years old!
“Passionate Lady,” Ricardo uttered into his phone and hung up.
Waking up from the dreams of her Spaniard, Henrietta got back to sewing on the machine again, and the dress was becoming more and more elegant and lovely. The woman could work wonders with things, but she already missed Veronica.