“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered. It wasn’t until she began to replace everything that she realized there was a small, cream-colored envelope tucked inside.
It can’t be, she thought. There was no way…her mother hadn’t done this for her in years. Her heart gave a joyful little bump against her ribs, flooding with the old, familiar starlight as she tore the envelope open and shook its contents out. There were two sheets of paper—one was a rambling letter that, to the casual eye, was filled with chatter about the weather, the museum, the apartment. But there was a second, smaller piece of paper included, this one with the shape of a heart cut out from its center. When laid over the first, the message changed; the heart gathered the rambling, nonsensical words into a simple phrase: I love you and I am so proud of who you are and what you’ll do.
She used to leave Etta notes like this every time she had to travel for work, when Etta had gone to stay with Alice—little reminders of love, tucked inside her overnight bag or in her violin case. But the longer she looked at it, Etta began to feel herself drift away from that initial burst of happiness. Her mom wasn’t exactly a sentimental person when it came down to it; she wasn’t sure what to make of this, especially on top of the earrings. Trying to thaw their relationship after freezing it over in the first place?
Etta checked her phone. A half hour until the concert.
No texts. No missed calls.
No surprise there.
But also…still no Alice.
She stood up, setting her purse down on the chair and slipping out of the room to check on her. Her instructor had seemed almost confused earlier, or at least startled. It was entirely possible someone had trapped her in conversation, or she was having a hard time getting ahold of whoever she was trying to call, but Etta couldn’t turn off the panic valve, the prickle of something like dread walking down the back of her neck.
The auditorium was empty, save for the ushers being briefed on the evening by an event coordinator. Etta hustled up the aisle as fast as she could in her heels, catching the last few notes from the violinist onstage. She’d be up soon.
But Alice wasn’t out in the hall, cell phone pressed to her ear. Neither, for that matter, was her mom. They weren’t loitering in the museum’s entrance, the Great Hall, either—and when she checked the steps, all she found were pigeons, puddles, and tourists. Which left one possibility.
Etta turned back toward the steps up to the European paintings collection and slammed into someone, nearly sending them both tumbling to the ground.
“Ah—I’m sorry!” Etta gasped as he steadied her.
“What’s the rush? Are you—” The man stared down at her through silver-rimmed glasses, lips parted in surprise. He was older, edging into middle age, or already there judging by the streaks of gray in his otherwise jet-black hair. Etta took one look at him and knew she’d nearly mowed down one of the Met’s donors. Everything about him was well-groomed; his tuxedo was immaculate, a dark red rose tucked into the lapel.
“I wasn’t looking where I was going,” she said. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”
He only stared at her.
“Anyway,” she rambled, backing up to continue her search, “I hope you’re okay, I’m so sorry again.…”
“Wait!” he called after her. “What’s your name?”
Etta jogged up the steps, her heels clacking loudly against the marble. She made her way through the exhibits, waving at the security guards and curators, to the elevator that would take her to the conservation wing. Her mom might have needed to stop by her office, or maybe she had taken Alice up for privacy.
The wing was all but abandoned, save for a security guard, George, who nodded in recognition as she passed by and continued down the hall.
“Your mom’s in her office,” George told her. “Came up a few minutes ago with a lady blazing at her heels.”
“Thanks,” Etta said quickly, ducking around him.
“Don’t you have that concert tonight?” he called. “Good luck!”
Concert, practice, warm-up—
“—haven’t listened to me in years!”
She almost didn’t recognize Alice’s voice in its anger; it was so rare for the woman to raise it. It was muffled by the closed door, but still powerful enough to rage down the hall and reach her ears.
“You don’t get to make this call, Alice,” her mom continued, sounding far calmer. Etta’s knees felt like water as she stood outside the office door, pressing her ear against it. “I’m her mother, and contrary to your opinion, I do know what’s best for my child. It’s her time—you know this. You can’t just pluck her off this path, not without consequences!”
“Damn the consequences! And damn you too, for thinking of them and not of her. She’s not ready for this. She doesn’t have the right training, and there’s no guarantee it’ll go the right way for her!”
Not ready for this. Alice’s words ripped through her mind. Not ready for what? The debut?
“I love you to death, you know this,” Rose continued. “You’ve done more for the two of us than I could ever express or thank you for, but stop fighting me. You don’t understand, and you clearly don’t know Etta if you’re underestimating her. She can handle it.”
Between the hummingbird pulse of her heart and the numb shock spreading through her veins, Etta had to replay the words again and again before she could understand that her mom was actually fighting for her—that it was Alice who was trying to hold her back.