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Introducing Stella May

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

Hello, my name is Marina Sardarova. Stella May is my pen name (or my alter ego). In many regards, we are very different, even though she is me. She’s more daring, braver and self-assured; she knows exactly what she wants. She writes because she loves it and because she has stories inside of her. She never listens when people tell her she cannot do something simply because it’s impossible. She believes in herself. In short- she’s a much better version of myself.

I was born in the sixties of the last century in a country that doesn’t exist anymore: the former Soviet Union. However, I am not Russian–I’m Armenian, and proud of my heritage.

Literature and music are my two great passions. My maternal grandparents were both professional singers; my father was a jazz guitarist. My brother and I both finished musical colleges. I graduated from a Conservatory (or Music Academy) with a diploma in musicology.

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Or an artist. Or even a famous poet. I was practicing piano for hours, sketching and writing some plays and poetry. And, of course, reading books. I don’t remember myself without a book. Ever. My aunt had a huge home library that was my absolutely most favorite place on earth. I had a very happy childhood indeed!

When I moved to the United States, to a country where everything was so different (including language), I quickly realized that I needed to learn English more than I needed to eat. Because while I could easily survive on water and bread, I absolutely refused to live without books. And so, I taught myself English (with the help of children’s books and cartoons), and my dear neighbor, Mrs. Foster (God rest her beautiful soul). She truly believed I understood whatever she was saying, so she’d engage me in a long conversations whenever she could, and demanded (in her own patient and kind way) a response. She left me no choice.

As soon as I was able to read books (with a dictionary at first), my life became whole again. And the absolutely crazy idea of writing started to slowly emerge from somewhere within.

I began to write in secret, penning a few sentences here and there, using my son’s discarded, half-used notebooks. When my husband brought home our very first computer, a chunky heavyweight Compaq, I discovered Microsoft Works (how many people still remember that program?). Of course, he purchased it for business purposes, with the silly notion that I would learn spreadsheets and accounting . . . poor misguided soul.

Instead, I spent every free moment in front of my beloved computer learning to type, writing my heart away.

I guess that’s when Stella May first started to emerge. She didn’t have her own name yet, or her own identity. She was still hiding behind me, unsure and hesitant.

Then, one night, I saw in my dream a very young woman, almost a girl, who was standing in a middle of a crowd, clutching a baby. She was skinny, badly dressed and scared. She had green eyes and curly red hair, and her name was Natasha. She was at the JFK airport. Somehow, I knew that. I also knew that the baby wasn’t hers. Above her head I saw a banner: Welcome to the United States of America. And that’s how the idea of Rostoff saga (Once & Forever ) came to me. And that’s when Stella May was born.

It took me twenty years, between raising my son and running a business with my husband, to bring this story to life. In 2018, after many unsuccessful attempts to submit my book to a traditional publisher, I split my first book into three parts (my son’s brilliant idea), and self-published it as the separate books: The Children, The Parents, and The Lovers. I sold more than 1100 copies.

After I said good-bye to the Rostoffs, I almost had postpartum depression (ha-ha) until I started to play with the idea of past-lives remembrances and dreams. I decided to read more on the subject . . . and the idea of Rhapsody in Dreams came to life. This time around, I deliberately chose to self-publish my book instead from the get-go. In July 2019, I introduced my second child to the world.

While still in a middle of Kira and Al’s story, my husband and I visited Amelia Island, FL. I immediately knew that I will set my next book there. And since the whole atmosphere of the place seems to be frozen in Victorian time, what choice do I have but to start on a time-travel fantasy romance? None.

Before & After (that’s a tentative name of my work in progress) will hopefully be released next summer.

I’m enjoying the process of writing tremendously, every single moment of it, be to a smooth sailing or a rough stumbling. I love when my heroes talk to me (in my head), when they do and act as I expect. I love it even more when they start to argue and misbehave, digging their heels and dragging me away from the story line or a well-panned dialog. I’m having fun.

Oh, and why Stella May? Well, it’s really simple: Stella is the name of my favorite aunt whom I adore; May is my birth month. And the initials – S M – are my own, only in reverse.

Once & Forever: Book Three “The Lovers” excerpt

PART THREE
The Lovers             

1

Miami, Present days.

Special Agent Peter Rostoff felt like a walking corpse. After an impossibly long flight from the West Coast to the South, with a layover in LA, he was fatigued to the point of no return . Peter always hated flying and usually tried to use an alternative type of transportation whenever possible. He parked his Jeep in front of the garage in the driveway, managing this task on sheer autopilot, and then just sat there in the car, looking outside of the driver’s window . He noticed tall weeds smothering all the flowerbeds. Bastards grew up like maniacs and were already up to his ass. Peter swore under his breath with more resignation than heat. Damn, he needed to take a couple of days off. If for nothing else but to revive his plants, he thought, looking at the small garden with guilt. He started it from the scratch when he purchased this house a couple of years ago, indulging in his childhood passion of dipping his hands into the soil. His love for all things growing under the sun did not diminish with years. Only his feelings toward humans altered drastically. Considering all the scam of humanity, he met during his ten years with the FBI; it would probably be a small miracle otherwise. Peter knew from the experience the horrific things people could and had done to each other for one thing only: profit. Money.

Finally stepping out of the car, stiff and sore from sitting too long, Peter reflected on and dismissed again the thought that he should’ve taken his father’s offer of a corporate jet. But, hell, for years he had so painstakingly and deliberately separated himself from the Rostoff & Co., rebuffing any notion of his connection with it, had shown no desire to be associated with the famous name or family company whatsoever, so now he felt like he has no right to rely on the amenities it provided such as  the comfort and luxury of a private plane. Or family discount at the Rostoff’s, although he couldn’t imagine why he would ever need a discount at the world famous jewelry chain. Peter absently stole a look at the magnificent diamond he wore on his pinkie. It was his father’s birthday present and try as he might , Peter couldn’t remove it or get rid of it. Nor could he hide away from the memories…

Resigned, Peter slowly walked to the door of the one-story bungalow he called home, unlocked it and entered his domain. A tiny foyer opened up to the modest living room furnished Spartan-like with dark leather sofa, a present to himself, glass top coffee table and a single chair. One true luxury that Peter allowed himself was his plush carpet in deep rich mauve, thick and almost ankle deep. Removing his loafers  and socks, he sunk his bare feet into it, almost moaning with pleasure. Damn, he sincerely hoped he wouldn’t need to wear this ridiculous excuse for a shoe for a long time to come. Or a suit and necktie for that matter, he thought, wincing. Give him a pair of good running Adidas and old Levi’s every day. Thank God his everyday job didn’t  require a formal attire; otherwise, Peter would probably commit suicide. How his father stood dressing up in the suit and tie day after day for so many years was really beyond him. Peter checked his messages first then went into a small room he called the office and booted up his computer. As tired as he was, he wanted to make sure that nothing urgent popped up while he was stuck on the plane. He opened his secured mailbox. Several e-mails needed his attention, but it was the one, in particular, he clicked opened as soon as he saw it. Reading it twice, Peter started to reply immediately, frowning in concentration as he composed it, feeling the same familiar rush of adrenaline and anger heating his blood. Damn, he hated the case this email was referring to with a vengeance, hated with every gut and every last drop of blood in him. Replying on the email from Interpol darkened his mood that was not very light to begin with. After finally clicking  the “send” button, Peter plowed fingers of both hands through his hair, a nervous gesture he inherited from his father, exhaling breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Every nerve in his body began to quiver as he tried not to remember and failed. The foul taste in his mouth refused to go away, even after three weeks. God, he thought, just three weeks as this case was closed, but it seemed like a lifetime ago.  Or yesterday . And no matter how much he drank or how strong the liquor was, it couldn’t wash that foul taste out. It was one of the most gruesome and tough cases Peter had the misfortune to work on. He had nightmares about it almost every night. 

He needed time, he knew, for the memories to dim and pain to dull. Three weeks wasn’t enough–  not nearly. He also knew it would never disappear for good. Ever.

Every case had left an invisible scar on Peter’s soul and added one more nightmare to his collection. Peter sighed. He just needed some time for the vivid memories of that brothel on the outskirts of Miami to ebb and faded away. But the images of the girls barely old enough to wear a bra, much less to be exposed to the horrors they endured, and their eyes —  those empty, dull, vacant eyes glazed with acceptance and resignation — t hat memory would stay with him forever…

Angrily pushing himself up from the chair, Peter opened a small fridge he kept in his office, took a bottle from the freezer compartment and splashed cold vodka into a lone Baccarat glass. Another habit he inherited from his father: he never poured his vodka over ice, but and drunk it straight and frozen.

This case has burned a hole right through his gut and his heart because all the victims were young girls, almost kids. It was hard when Peter had to deal with the victims of sex crimes; it was unbearable when it was children.

Very young, often educated and intelligent girls from poor Eastern European families were lured from their home by promises of good jobs by unscrupulous con artists of the worst possible variety. Peter called them soul thieves. These monsters were bringing in young unsuspecting girls into rich countries, like the United States, but instead of promised jobs, they were stealing their innocence and humanity by selling them into sex slavery.

Peter and his Special Unit busted huge sex-trafficking operation after two-and-a-half years of hard grueling work, giving many girls their freedom and lives back. But their souls and their spirits were damaged forever, Peter thought with grief. He swore in Russian and finished his vodka in one gulp. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it or about other girls living in the similar hellish nightmare in other countries: Austria, Germany, Hungary to name a few… This organization was like a giant octopus. They managed to severe only one tentacle out of hundreds. The FBI was constantly sharing all the information with Interpol. Just now he had sent another e-mail with the most current information he managed to get while on the plane. And he could only hope that it would help. Somehow. Anyhow. The rest was up to Interpol and its agents. But it fails to make Peter feel any better or less impotent. Damn it all to hell. Sometimes frustration was greater than satisfaction. In this particular case, it was humongous. He suddenly remembered one particular girl. He later learned she was from Ukraine, and her name was Olesia. She was barely thirteen…

Three weeks have passed since that bust, but Peter still broke in icy chills just thinking about it, about her. Clad in a flimsy garish dress, her face painted so heavily her own mother wouldn’t probably recognize her, she was standing in the middle  of that hell-hole, abused and molested, looking oddly like the Botticelli’s Madonna with her detached grey eyes and that beautiful long reddish-blond hair. And when she lifted those vacant eyes and looked straight at him, Peter froze to the spot because suddenly he could see his Katie in her. A different shade of gray in the eyes, wrong color of hair, but some similarities just grabbed him by the throat and almost stopped his heart.

One thought that in her place could be his baby sister sent him in a state of a such a murderous rage it took three other agents to restrain him or he would easily kill the bastards already arrested and in handcuffs, with his bare hands. And damn all the consequences.

Peter gulped  the remaining vodka in one swallow and wished he could get his hands on the honcho bastard right now. He wouldn’t be breathing, the animal. He didn’t deserve a fair trial–  he deserved to die. Slowly, painfully, mercilessly. Peter fisted his hands, feeling the tremor in them. He wasn’t surprised. Rage. He was quivering with it, from head to toe. Recently it became a very familiar feeling for him. The beast from within was trying to get free. If not for his famous– or infamous-  Rostoff’s control, a family trait he inherited from his father, Peter would probably be a burnout case by now. But one day, he was afraid, the beast will get past the barriers of his control and get finally free. And then… then … his eyes traveled around the room and finally found the single picture on his desk. Framed in gold, five by seven photo was of a teenage girl, beautiful in her budding femininity, smiling shyly in the camera. Hair of true platinum color, a rare Nordic shade, long and silky, and the eyes of the color of a sky before the rain. Katie… His beautiful princess, his baby sister… No, not a baby anymore. Peter sighed, looking at her picture. Ekaterina Rostoff, a famous artist, sculptor,  and beautiful woman. She was his salvation. And his curse.

Just thinking about her made him melt with absolute happiness. And burn with shame. Both became his constant companions. He lifted his hand toward the picture, but at the last moment dropped it down without touching. Cursing, Peter turned away from the smiling girl on the photo, raked his hair again, more defeated than ever. Seeing her these past two days was hard on him. It would be difficult under any circumstances but specifically at their grandmother’s funeral, at that place, Zolotoe Selo, where both of them grew up. That estate held such a special place in his heart. That manor, that monstrosity of the big, opulent house and all its surroundings both repelled and attracted him in equal measures. For her it was simpler: she hated Zolotoe Selo.

With a vengeance…

Once & Forever: Part Two “The Parents” excerpt

PART TWO

The Parents

1

 San Francisco 1991

The Rostoff household was in an uproar.

The official cause was an upcoming celebration of Peter’s eighteenth birthday.

The real reason, however, was a family reunion of sorts, because after five long years[1] , Dmitry Rostoff was finally coming home, to the States[2] , to his family estate in California, Zolotoe Selo, to attend his son’s big day.

Every member of the household was frenzied with anticipation.

Only Elizabeth was calm and seemed absolutely unaffected. She went through each day as usual, without any interruption in her schedule, as normal as you please.

Not even Ivan, who was closer to Elizabeth than any other member of the stuff, had noticed any changes in her behavior. After Peter announced that Dmitry had accepted his invitation and would be flying here for his birthday and staying in the manor house, she just nodded and calmly ordered her son’s rooms to be prepared immediately. That’s it. No emotions, no objections, no reaction whatsoever.

God only knew what was really happening inside her heart. Or her head.

Ivan long ago gave up any attempts to solve the great puzzle that was Elizabeth Rostoff.

He was terrified of her, completely in awe from the moment he began to work for the Rostoffs. And foolishly and helplessly in love. Even after so many years…

It was never a question for Ivan as to who was really the Master of the household, even when Elizabeth’s father-in-law and her husband were still alive. She was the domineering force, the power to reckon with, and for Ivan that counted the most.

He loved her completely, was obsessed with her; has fantasized about her every night. And she knew it. Oh, she knew, all right! And used it. Constantly. Ruthlessly.

Sometimes he hated her, and dreamed of revenge. Other times he ached for her, wept for her, called for her from the depth of his soul.

But never once, in many years of his employ, had he[4]  questioned her decisions or her orders. That was what made him indispensable to her: his blind obedience[5] , which he himself preferred to call loyalty. Whatever his Mistress wished — [6] he hurried to execute. Always.

And so, per Elizabeth’s order, Dmitry’s rooms were immediately scrubbed from top to bottom and aired. All furniture was polished until it gleamed and smelled subtly of lemon and wax. Old grandfather’s clock was ticking seconds away, its pendulum lazily swinging, awaiting its master.

Anticipation hung in the air like a rain cloud, thick and heavy.

Natasha slowly  walked all the rooms of the suite where Dmitry would be staying for his visit. It  had became her habit for the past few days to come here at the end of each day and simply stay in silence for a minute or so. She didn’t know what was so special about that particular suit[9] e that pulled her like a magnet except the fact that he will be occupying it, sleeping in the huge bed, looking out of this window, sitting in this chair…

Five years, Natasha mused. Five long years she didn’t see him, didn’t talk to him, and knew about his life only from Peter. From the bits and pieces of information that Petya provided, Natasha had learned about Dmitry’s life in Paris, his work, his friends. But nothing about his private life. And that was fine with her. She didn’t want to know. It wasn’t her concern. He wasn’t her concern.

Or so she tried to convince herself. Every day for the last five years…

No, really, she didn’t care if he was involved with someone. Of course, he was. Svetlana was dead for a long time. Life should go on with or without people we love, and that was only natural.

So, why is your life going nowhere?

Oh, my life’s just great! Habitually Natasha kept debates with her opponent– her inner voice that recently seemed to disagree with her constantly.

I have a family, even friends. I have all I need; all the life I can handle!

Yeah? Then why are you coming to his rooms every night? Do you like torturing yourself?

I’m not! Torturing myself, that is. I just…

You just… what? Remembering? Dreaming?

Well, yes. And what’s wrong with that?

Nothing, except that dreams are cruel. You should know that.

She sighed. Yes, she should. And she has. She shouldn’t even think about him, not now, not ever. Except…. many things that couldn’t be ignored (even if she wished it) were binding them: Svetlana, the kids. And, yes, the memories.

He left five years ago without a word. Just like that. Like he never was.

She felt rejected. Betrayed. And knew she had no right to feel that way. He never said anything, never promised anything to her. He never even touched her except that night in the gardens when he held her. Close, but not close enough.

The memory of that one night haunted her for a very long time. Instead of ignoring them or locking them inside, Natasha often intentionally dragged her memories from her subconscious mind, forcing herself to face them. At first, that exercise cost her dearly, but it also helped her to accept the truth she didn’t mean anything to Dmitry Rostoff; that their chemistry was just a fluke born out of the traumatic experience they shared, and that both of them were better off without it.

She accepted it, learned to live with it.  But she could never forget.

Whatever happened–or not happened- – between them five years ago was not finished, because it didn’t die a natural death but was brutally amputated. And like any chopped limb it throbbed and bled. Still.

When he left five years ago, he stole some intangible but the vital part of her that could never be replaced. She wasn’t the same person after that. She could never be healed completely. She could never be whole again.

And Natasha accepted that, too. She was hurt before, brutally. Her scars were invisible, but they still existed. Five years ago she just added one more scar to her collection. No big deal. She was a survivor, Natasha reminded herself firmly. She will go on; she’ll be fine. She was fine. The trick was to look only forward- – never back. Past belongs to the past. Dmitry belonged to the past. Her stupid infatuation with him belonged to the past.

It was long buried and forgotten.

And who are you kidding, girl?

Natasha sighed helplessly. God, why now! Oh, Dmitry! Why after all these years have you decided to come back? But she knew the answer: Dmitry Rostoff was coming home for his son’s eighteenth birthday. She’d be more surprised if Dmitry would not attend because Peter was the only member of his family Dmitry truly and deeply loved and cared about.

Absently playing with a delicate gold cross around her neck, Natasha wandered around the room a bit, then walked to the huge Palladian windows and looked out. The full[14]  splendor of Elizabeth’s gardens failed to grab her attention now. All she could think about was just how on earth she would face Dmitry tomorrow and pretend as nothing had happened all these years ago?

But pretend she will.

Oh, she’d rather die than give him the satisfaction of knowing that he broke her heart once upon a time…

God, she was so naïve, so pathetic! Natasha considered falling in love with Dmitry as one of the most stupid things she’d ever done in her life.

The most stupid, period. 

Then again, maybe it wasn’t love at all. Maybe it was just a crush; she stubbornly debated with herself; maybe when she saw him tomorrow, she wouldn’t feel a thing and would wonder instead what she’d ever seen in him. After all, she wasn’t the same person anymore. That poor girl, devastated after her best friend’s sudden death, dragged throughout half of the world to another country, breathless and terrified, with the helpless baby on her hands, that girl did not exist anymore.

She was a totally different person now, stronger, smarter. Older, she sighed. She’ll be thirty soon, in a couple years. Natasha was a mature woman who can take care of herself and even boss around her two children. She smiled, thinking of them, her kids, Petya and Katia. They were her pride, her joy, and hope. Every single day she gave her thanks to God for bringing them into her life. She didn’t feel cheated because she didn’t have her own kids or her own family. Those two were all the family she needed. She honestly considered Peter and Katia her own children, was proud of both of them and loved them to distraction.

She honestly forgot that she hadn’t carried them inside her body or wasn’t the one to give birth to them: in her heart and soul, they were hers.

And that was what  mattered the most.

Natasha very often forgot they had another living parent: their father. Mostly because that parent was absent from their lives.

Especially in Katia’s case.

Why couldn’t he love her, Natasha wondered in a gazillions time, hurting for the little girl? Wasn’t he curious – -just a little –about the child he created with the woman he loved?! Did he ever wonder how she looks, for goodness’ sake?!

How can anyone stay away from his flesh and blood for five years and not even bother to call or send a card for a birthday?! Oh, there were gifts and presents from Paris after each of Peter’s visit with Dmitry, but Natasha long ago figured out that all of them were bought by the boy himself, bless his kind heart. She was pretty sure Dmitry didn’t have a clue about all these toys and cute clothes “from Dad” which Petya usually carried by truckloads and presented to his half-sister.

Damn the man, how could he be so cold and unforgiving?

And damn her for carrying too much, for hurting and remembering.

Never again, she vowed fiercely. Never again would she let her heart be so open, so trusting, so vulnerable. Never again would she deceive herself, dreaming of happily ever after. Because there was no such thing as happily ever after…

Svetlana’s dream of love and happiness turned out to be the most tragic event of her life.  But it gave her and you Katia…

Interrupted by the noise of loud breathing behind her, Natasha looked over her shoulder, smiling at the picture.

“Well, boys, thanks for coming to fetch me,” she said to the two huge German Shepherds  standing at the door, waiting for her. She wasn’t startled or surprised to see them here. As a matter of fact, she was expecting her intruders to show up even sooner. “I would invite you in, but it isn’t my room, you know,” she explained to the dogs seriously, “and, anyway, it’s time for me to go.”

She walked toward them, and the two  dogs immediately started to thump their tails against the floor in anticipation, whining a little. Natasha gave each dog a head rub, all the while trying to avoid their tongues. But she didn’t escape their wet greetings. Frankly, she didn’t try all that hard, and these two hooligans knew it. The pair of trained guard dogs Dmitry got five years ago after an unsuccessful attempt on Katia’s life were huge and ferocious looking, one tan and black, the other silvery grey. But both were putties in Natasha’s hands, not to mention Katia’s. Both dogs adored their little charge, fiercely guarding her inside the house and especially outside of it, not letting anyone except Natasha and Peter to approach the little girl–not even Elizabeth.

Natasha figured out a long time ago that dogs merely tolerated Elizabeth as the necessary evil (and only to the point). You can’t trick animals, she supposed, nor the children. She remembered Katia’s reaction to her grandmother when she was a baby. It changed with years, of course, but subtly. Katia didn’t break into hysterics nowadays whenever she saw Elizabeth but become instantly alert and unnaturally quiet. Same as two German Shepherds. Nope, couldn’t fool animals and children…

Once & Forever: Book One “The Children” excerpt

Prologue 
Present days

Spring has finally arrived in New England, as fashionably late as a true lady. Precocious March,    with its roller-coaster of temperatures  ungraciously gave up, succumbing to a fragile, tender, and  crystal clear April which in turn has bowed out to a bold and brazen May. Its sun-kissed embrace has reached the petite coastal state of Rhode Island, chasing off last remnants of winter. Magnificent trees surrounding Brown University slowly came alive with color, welcoming another season in their long, dignified lives. Here and there,   flowers were  flirting with sunlight, pulsing sinuously in rhythm with breezy air. Nature was waking up from long frozen sleep, ravenous for new colors and sounds. She loved spring the best, especially late spring. It was her absolutely the most favorite time of the year: the time of new beginnings, new hopes. But today she was too disturbed to enjoy the beautiful weather. She didn’t    even notice the sunshine or incessant chirping of the birds , despite the fact that she’d been standing by the open window, looking outside for the past half hour. Today was the day she’d been waiting for seventeen and a half years. Oh, how often she dreamed of this day, prayed for it! Her imagination had created thousands of different scenarios, and every one of them had forever etched into her memory. She lived for- longed fo r- this moment of truth and retribution all this seventeen and a half years. Finally, the day of reckoning has arrived. And suddenly , she realized she was not only far from ready for it, she wasn’t even sure anymore she wanted retribution. To add an insult to injury, she was scared. The sticky web of lies and deceptions surrounding her whole life had been swept away, and she’d suddenly broken free. Gloriously, maddeningly free! She was dizzy, and a bit disoriented like a happy drunk with her newfound freedom to defend herself, to tell her side of the story and to finally-   finally – Come back from the shadows. But does she have a right to do it? What purpose would it serve now? Doubts bombarded her, nagging at her conscience.  Justice? Or self-affirmation? Does it matter? A gentle breeze began to unfurl her fashionably twisted hair, transforming a neat do into an explosion of curly halo around her face. But she didn’t notice. Memories, brutally clear and real, assaulted her, momentarily short-circuiting all her sense, and then gushing them all to the surface with a force of an explosion.

Words, smells, sounds, colors- everything was swirling inside of her in a crazy macabre dance. She didn’t try to fight this assault; she welcomed it, deliberately saturating her mind and her soul with pain and hurt. And anger.

It always was one of her strongest defenses–her anger. It kept her sane, forcing her to fight, to endure, to move–one painful step at the time, one hour, one day, one year. Seventeen years and six months, she thought bitterly. Half of her lifetime.
For seventeen  years and six months she lived for this day. And, damn it, she deserved the opportunity to stop hiding in the shadows and come back to light!

Her goal was almost within her reach, but she was suddenly ambushed by doubts. Shrapnel sharp, they sliced through her anger and hurt, ripping to shreds layers of defenses and knocking to hell and back the walls of composure she so painstakingly and methodically built during all these years.

If only it was all about her and her alone! But it wasn’t.

Slowly turning around, she walked toward her desk. Several newspapers lay spread open on its surface, their headlines announcing of the death of Elizabeth Rostoff, multimillionaire and the matriarch of jewelry empire Rostoff & Co. She ignored the written  words, looking instead at the pictures of the Rostoff family: two dark-haired men, father, and son, impeccably dressed, both tall and ridiculously gorgeous even by Hollywood standards, and a stunning young woman with sharp Slavic cheekbones and long pale braid.

Her unique , elongated eyes were the darkest shade of gray, almost pewter or, as she always thought, the color of the rainy sky; her hair was color of pure platinum, almost silvery-white and silky.  She closed her eyes briefly, letting pain fill her heart to the brim until she felt dizzy. Katia. Her little girl, her princess. A grown woman now –Ekaterina Rostoff, a famous artist, celebrity. She still remembered her milky baby smell, her fluffy mop of hair and toothless grin. Katia, her baby, her daughter.

God, how will she hate her! How all of them will hate her…

She sighed deeply, wiped a single tear that managed to slip past her control and took one last look at the pictures.

Two men flanking Katia portrayed the picture of the unerringly calm facade with a hint of Slavic arrogance. So much alike, she mused, lovingly touching the photo, and so much different…

“I love you, “  she whispered, “   all of you. I’ve hurt you once and… I will hurt you again. I don’t want to, but I have no choice. Forgive me.” 

With the last glance on the newspapers on her desk, she straightened her spine, banishing all emotions, all regrets, and pains, tucking them into a deep corner of her mind, heart, and soul, something that she’d learned to do well for the past seventeen and a half years.

With the last deep calming breath, she pushed the button on the intercom, connecting her as well as all other professors of The Department of Slavic Studies with the secretary of the department.

“Yes, Professor?”

“Nancy, please call the Miami  FBI field office, and ask for Special Agent Rostoff.”

Her voice gave a little catch on the surname.

“Ah… Rostoff?”

“That’s right. Peter Rostoff.”

“Sure, one moment.”

She felt calm and in control once again, ready for the first battle that lay ahead.  She’d waited a very long time, and by God, she would be strong and prepared. Turning her head, she looked again at the headlines. Elizabeth Rostoff, she mused, matriarch and multi-millionaire. Tyrant, blackmailer, evil bloodthirsty bitch. You thought you could break me, she thought bitterly, you thought you’d live forever. Well, guess again, Your Grace.

Her heart beat strongly in her chest, and she wondered briefly how was it possible for something shattered time and time again to have such a strong will to function, to continue.

“Professor, Special Agent Rostoff on line two,” Nancy announced cheerfully.

She closed her eyes, shut them tight for a split second, bracing herself.

Finally, she picked up the phone.

“Zdravstvuj, Petya.”

Rhapsody in Dreams excerpt

Prelude

1992

Kira Wagner died when she was six. The house where she lived with her parents and her baby brother collapsed, burying them alive. They were discovered the next day. By then, Kira’s parents and the baby were long gone; she was breathing, but just barely. In the ambulance, during the mad dash to the hospital, her heart suddenly stopped. In medical terminology she flat-lined. For the next six impossibly long minutes her heart stood still, refusing to pump blood, depriving her brain of oxygen. Two paramedics, grim, dirty, and exhausted, immediately started CPR and delivered her to the Emergency Center in the record time all things considered. Then the doctors took over the fight for saving the little girl, one of the thousands of victims of the deadliest hurricane in the history of Florida with such a ridiculously poetic name—Andrew.

Kira’s heart stubbornly refused to re-start even after a high-voltage shock was applied to her chest for the third time. It made her little body arch and bounce and burned her skin, leaving ugly marks. And then, when the doctor was about to pronounce her dead, and turned his head to read the time of death off the ER wall clock, her heart suddenly began to beat again, and Kira took a shallow breath. Her eyes opened, and she asked in her clear high-pitched voice:

“Where is Albert?”

Movement One. Allegro Moderato

1

Adelina Wagner was sitting in a hospital waiting room, stiff and chilled to the bone. Her mind still refused to get in sync with reality, reeling from the shock.

Her son was dead, and so were her daughter-in-law and her grandson, baby JJ. The horror of this news was so enormously overwhelming, she couldn’t accept it yet. Her brain knew it, but refused to deal. The five-hour drive to the hospital went by in a blur. She didn’t even remember how she got here. After the morning call from Miami, she ran to the door of her shop, jumped into the car and peeled out of the parking lot, heading south. She didn’t remember if she closed the shop. Oh, Emma was there too, Adelina realized, still dazed. Emma was already chatting with the first customers when the phone near the cash register had started to ring, so Adelina took the call that changed her life forever. Before and after.

Her whole family, she’d been told, has perished in a hurricane.

All of them?!”

“Please accept our deepest condolences, Mrs. Wagner… Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am, my mistake— your granddaughter is listed as critical.”

Her little Kira was found alive but in a bad shape, she was told. Multiple bruises and lacerations, moderate to severe concussion, one dislocated shoulder; she has also suffered a cardiac arrest. My God, Adelina thought, how much more could the fragile six-year-old body withstand?!

Until she arrived at the Humana Hospital in Pembroke Pines, where all the victims of hurricane Andrew  were taken, Adelina didn’t know if Kira had survived.

Even now, sitting in a crowded waiting room, surrounded by so much pain and grief you could almost touch it, she didn’t know if her little girl was alive.

Finally, the doctor stepped into the room and called her name. Adelina sprung to her feet. She beseechingly searched the harried face of the doctor, who seemed to be too young to shave until you looked into his ancient eyes.

“Kira…?”

“Alive. We managed to bring her back.”

Adelina sagged against the wall, clamping her mouth with her hand to muffle the cry. Thank God, oh, thank you, God! She screamed on the inside. Her little girl was alive. Kira has survived.

“She was asking about Albert. Her father?”

Adelina looked at the doctor, too shell-shocked to process his question. After a moment she shook her head:

“No. No, her father’s name is…was Richard.” Her voice shook. Was. Her son, her dear boy was dead! The pain was enormous, debilitating and sharp; it was tearing her to a million tiny pieces, threatening to swallow her alive.

Can’t give up, Adelina kept repeating like a mantra. Need to be strong. For Kira, for my baby girl. Must be strong.

Kira was alive, thank God, and she was her responsibility now.

“Do you know who’s this Albert person might be?” the doctor asked again.

“No…I don’t know. Maybe her friend? I don’t know, doctor. Why?”

“Just curious. It was the first thing she said.” The first and only, the doctor thought.

“Has she asked about her parents? Her brother?”

“No. Just about this Albert.”

My God, Adelina realized that she would be the one to tell the little girl about her family. She briefly closed her eyes, then shook her head. It wasn’t the time to feel sorry for herself. There would be time for that later. For now, she must think only about Kira. Adelina took a deep breath.

 “What exactly did she say?”
“She said: ‘where is Albert.’ ” 

“Where is Albert? What…what could that mean?”

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” the doctor answered, a bit brusquely, “What matters is that your granddaughter is alive and breathing on her own again.”

“Yes, yes of course.” Adelina dismissed the subject of this Albert, asking the most important question: “What is her prognosis, doctor? Please be honest with me. Did she suffer any serious trauma?”

“Luckily, no, which is a miracle by itself. Her brain shows no after-effects of oxygen deprivation; her heart is beating strong. She is one extremely lucky girl.”

“Miracle indeed,” Adelina whispered.

“She has some lacerations, some bruises, but nothing life-threatening. We’ll keep her overnight, and monitor her concussion closely, but if everything goes uneventfully, she’ll be ready to leave in the morning. Are you the one who’ll be taking care of her?”

“Yes.”

She and Kira’s maternal grandparents, who were living on a small farm in Ohio, were the only family Kira had left.

God, Adelina thought, closing her eyes, she has to call Magda and Paul, and shatter their world with the horrible news. Listed as an emergency contact for both her son and her daughter-in-law, Adelina had been easily located by the authorities the very next day after the tragedy. Plus, she lived in the Sunshine state too, just a few hours by car north of Miami, in quaint historical St. Augustine.

“Yes,” she repeated,” I’ll be taking care of her now.”

Kira was released the next day. She was unnaturally quiet. As a matter of fact, she didn’t speak a single word except “Oma,” acknowledging Adelina’s presence when she first saw her. She didn’t smile, just looked at her with huge clear eyes that somehow had changed their color from the quiet grey she was born with to deep aquamarine blue. The change was eerie, to say the least. Adelina was chilled to the bone every time she looked into those bottomless questioning eyes. Kira’s black hair was now sporting a snow-white streak above her right temple, another dramatic change that the tragedy had brought to her little girl. Her doctor was the first who’d noticed it, thinking that it was a residue of the ashes from the burned home she was rescued from. But after the shower the nurse gave Kira, the white lock was still there, even more dramatic against her raven black hair.

And of course, there were the burns from the defibrillator paddles on her chest where the doctors were shocking her heart. Otherwise, she was absolutely healthy, although a bit on a skinny side, a six-year-old girl who now officially had two birthdays: one in March, when she was born, and another on August 25th 1992, the day she was rescued and brought back to life after her clinical death; the day the whole country associated now with the hurricane Andrew.

Adelina signed a gazillion discharge pages for Kira’s release, collected her little girl dressed now in brand new white shorts and a pink t-shirt she had bought in the hospital’s gift shop (all Kira’s clothes and belongings had become ashes and were scattered somewhere under the pile of debris that used to be her home), and left the Pembroke Pine Hospital, holding onto Kira’s little hand like her life depended on it. And on some level, it did: her little girl was now the whole point of Adelina’s life, the whole reason for her existence. Just before getting into the car, Kira stopped and looked at Adelina, her eerie aquamarine eyes solemn under the long bangs. That horrible white streak above her right temple gave Adelina the goose bumps.

“Don’t worry, Oma,” she said in a quiet serious voice, clear and fragile like a silver bell. “I will take care of you now.”

“Oh, my precious,” Adelina’s eyes misted as she kneeled in front of Kira.” we will be okay; we’ll take care of each other. How about that?”

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