“Was it your foster father?” Etta asked. “The one who tried to steal from you?”
Her mother gave a humorless little smile. “Good guess.”
Both parents gone in one terrible Christmas car accident. Her guardian, her grandfather, gone after little more than a year. And the family that had fostered her…the father had never laid a finger on her, but from the few stories Etta had heard about him, his control over Rose’s life had been so rigid, so absolute, it was a choice between staying and suffocating, or the risk of running away on her own.
“What was it?” Etta asked, knowing she was pressing her luck. “The thing he tried to steal?”
“Oh, some old family heirloom. The truth is, I only kept it for one reason: I knew I could sell it and buy my ticket out of London, away from the foster family. I knew your great-granddad had bequeathed it to me so I could make a choice about my future. I’ve never regretted selling that old thing, because it brought me here. I want you to remember that—it’s our choices that matter in the end. Not wishes, not words, not promises.”
Etta turned her head back and forth, studying the earrings in the mirror.
“I bought these from a vendor at an old market—a souk—in Damascus when I was about your age. Her name was Samarah, and she convinced me to buy them when I told her it was my last trip, and I was finally going back to school. For the longest time, I saw them as the end of my journey, but now I think they were always meant to represent the beginning of yours.” Rose leaned down and kissed her cheek. “You’re going to be wonderful tonight. I’m so proud of you.”
Etta felt the sting of tears immediately, and wondered if it was possible to ever really capture a moment. Every bitter feeling of disappointment was washed out of her as happiness came rushing through her veins.
There was a knock at the door before Alice used her keys and announced her arrival with a cheerful “Hullo!”
“Now, get going,” Rose said, brushing a piece of lint off Etta’s shoulder. “I need a few minutes to change, but I’ll meet you over there.”
Etta stood, her throat still tight. She would have hugged her mom if Rose hadn’t stepped away and folded her hands behind her back. “I’ll see you there?”
“I’ll be right behind you, I promise.”
A ROLL OF FIRE BREATHED THROUGH THE NOTES, RATTLING THE breath in Etta’s chest, and sank down through her skin to shimmer in the marrow of her bones as she and Alice slipped inside the still-empty auditorium.
She could admit it; this violinist…Etta looked down at the program she had picked up. Evan Parker. Right. She’d heard him play at a few competitions. She could admit that he was decent enough. Maybe even a little good.
But, Etta thought, satisfaction slinking through her, not as good as me.
And not nearly good enough to do Bach’s Chaconne from Partita no. 2 in D Minor justice.
The lights dimmed and swept across the stage in bursts of shifting color as the technicians in the booth made last-minute adjustments to match the mood of the piece; Evan stood in the middle of it, dark hair gleaming, and went at the Chaconne like he was trying to set his violin on fire, completely oblivious to everything and everyone else. Etta knew that feeling. She might have doubted many things in her life, but Etta had never once doubted her talent, her love for the violin.
They had no choice which piece of music the museum’s board of directors had assigned each of them for that night’s fund-raising performance, but some small, sour part of her still stewed in envy that he’d been picked. The Chaconne was considered by most, including herself, to be one of the most difficult violin pieces to master—a single progression repeated in dozens of dizzying, complex variations. It was emotionally powerful, and structurally near perfect. At least, it was when played by her. It should have been played by her.
Her piece, the Largo from Sonata no. 3, was the last of the violin set. The piece was sweetly stirring, meditative in pace. Not Bach’s most complex or demanding, or even the brightest in its colors, but, as Alice said time and time again, there was no cheating when it came to Bach. Every piece demanded the full force of the player’s technical skill and focus. She would play it flawlessly, and then the whole of her attention would be on the debut.
Not on her mom.
Not on the fact that she now had no one to text or call after the event to give an update to.
Not on the fact that one night could determine her whole future.
“You would have done a bang-up job of the Chaconne,” Alice said as they made their way to the side of the stage, heading to the green room, “but tonight, the Largo is yours. Remember, this isn’t a competition.”
Alice had this magical look about her, like she would be at home in front of a hearth, wrapped in a large quilt, telling nursery rhymes to sweet-faced forest critters. Hair that, according to pictures, had once been flaming red and reached halfway down her back was now bobbed, as white as milk. Turning ninety-three hadn’t dulled any of her warmth or wit. But even though her mind was as sharp as ever, and her sense of humor twice as wicked, Etta was careful to help her up the stairs, equally careful not to hold her thin arm too tightly as one of the event coordinators led them to the green room.
“But also remember,” Alice whispered, grinning broadly, “that you are my student, and you are therefore the best here by default. If you feel inclined to prove that, who am I to stop you?”
Etta couldn’t help herself; she laughed and wrapped her arms around her instructor’s shoulders, and was grateful to have the hug returned tenfold. When she was younger, and just starting out on the competition circuit, she couldn’t go onstage until she’d had three hugs from Alice, and a kiss on the head for luck. It made her feel safe, like a warm blanket tucked around her shoulders, and she could disappear inside the feeling if she needed to.