“How long is this going to take?” Hannah asked.
Her mother sighed. “Hannah, please, you sound like a teenager.”
Hannah knew it would prove her mother’s point, but she still rolled her eyes dramatically.
“I saw that,” her mother said in her heavy French accent.
Hannah couldn’t help but smile. Her mother was right, she knew. At thirty-three, she was too old to be acting this way. But Hannah really, really didn’t want to be here. She looked around the large hall.
“It’s my favorite place in the whole darn world,” her father had always said about this theater. Hannah didn’t feel any fondness for it, though.
It was a pompous place for pompous people. The red carpets and shiny chandeliers all around her faded in comparison to the jewelry-clad women making their way up the stairs, holding on to their tuxedo-wearing husbands or lovers.
Her own mother, Lucile, sure looked the part tonight. She always did. Lucile was wearing a beautiful, deep green evening gown with frighteningly high stiletto heels under it. She wasn’t accompanied by a husband, though.
Her arm was linked with Hannah’s. At least, it was tonight Since Hannah’s father’s death almost fifteen years ago, her mother had come to the opera on her own.
For today’s performance, Lucile had asked her daughter to join her. “As a farewell gift,” she had said. Hannah had refused to come with her. Her mother had had to insist.
Now that Hannah was here – with Lucile’s hand clamped around her upper arm – she felt a pang of guilt. Making her mom come here by herself for all these years suddenly seemed cruel to her. It couldn’t have been easy for Lucile.
It sure was hard for Hannah. She had to swallow away tears when she had arrived in the grand foyer of the Metropolitan Opera half an hour ago. The memories of her father had washed over her with every step.
“It must be even harder for her,” Hannah thought. She glanced at her mother. Lucile was looking around with an air of dignity and belonging. “She would never tell anyone, of course,” Hannah realized.
Lucile had remarried ten years ago. As far as Hannah knew, the new husband had never joined her here either. She didn’t know if her mother didn’t want him to come, or if he had never bothered.
Not that it mattered. Lucile had divorced that poor excuse of a man two years ago. After ending her second marriage, Hannah’s mother had grown fed up with life in New York City.
In a few months, she would return to her home country, Belgium, for her retirement, leaving Hannah behind to run their successful chocolate business. It was a decision that had surprised Hannah.
She had been to Brussels a couple of times, to visit relatives, and she simply couldn’t imagine her glamorous mother living in such a chaotic city, far away from her only daughter.
But Lucile had made up her mind by the time she had told Hannah about it. She would move to Belgium and keep a small studio in Manhattan for visits. “I have an iPhone and an iPad, I’ll be just one touch away,” Lucile had said.
In just a few months, her mother would move to the other side of the ocean for good. Not before attending one last performance in this memory-filled concert hall, though. The last production of the season was opening tonight.
“I always miss him when I’m here,” Lucile said quietly.
Hannah pulled her mother a bit closer. “Yeah, me too.”
Lucile smirked. “Honey, you never come here.”
Hannah shook her head. “Why do you think that is?”
Lucile met her gaze from under thick eyelashes. “Is that why you stay away from here? I thought you just hated opera.”
Hannah grinned at her mother. “Oh, I do. I really do hate opera.”
Lucile smiled. Then, she playfully rolled her eyes.
“So, do you still hate it? Or did you like some of it?” Lucile asked, sounding surprisingly hopeful.
Hannah was switching her phone back on. “Ehm…,” she hesitated. “I guess this one was okay-ish. That one singer was … nice. Did they change something?”
Her mother laughed. “Honey, opera hasn’t changed. Maybe you have.”
Hannah typed in her password on the screen. “Well, I haven’t changed that much then. I still think it was too long and too dramatic. I mean, there’s not much subtlety in these stories, is there?”
“Oh, but there is,” Lucile said, pushing herself up from the velvet seat. “You just don’t see or hear it, dear. You’re not open to it.”
Hannah glanced at her mother. Lucile’s bright blue eyes were fixed on her. There was no judgment in them, though. Just warmth.
Hannah tucked her phone away in the inner pocket of her blazer and got up. They wouldn’t get to spend a lot of time together very soon. Better make the most of it now.
“Want to have a drink and tell me what I’m missing?” she asked with a smile as they walked out of the theater hall together.
Lucile’s lips curved up, fine wrinkles dancing around her eyes. “I’d like that very much. I actually need to talk to you about something.”
Hannah tilted her head. “OK, do you want to go to someplace in the neighborhood or …?”
Lucile pointed at the bar in the foyer of the theatre. “Let’s sit over there. I’m sure they’ll have a table for us.”
Hannah shrugged. “Fine by me.”
She followed her mother to the bar. There were about twenty tables, separated from the rest of the lobby by some plants and velvet ropes, which Hannah had always found weird. Most of the tables were occupied by the same couples Hannah had seen before.
This place really did make her uncomfortable. She would have rather left and found some cozy place nearby. They were shown to a table near the impressively large windows.
The waiter helped Lucile with her chair and she nodded gratefully at him. “We’ll have two glasses of Veuve Cliquot,” she stated.
“Of course, ma’am,” the waiter replied, bowing his head.
Hannah rested her chin on her right hand. “We celebrating something?”
Lucile was playing with the emerald ring on her left hand. “Yes, dear, life is about to change a great deal for both of us.”
Hannah straightened her back. “I’m ready to take over the business, mother,” she said confidently.
Lucile folded her hands on the table. “I know you are.”
Hannah looked up as the waiter arrived with their two glasses of champagne. She picked up her glass and raised it in the air as soon as he had left.
“Here’s to you. I hope you will be happy in Belgium, mom!”
Lucile lifted her drink. “I know I will be. Ça sera bon. And I trust you will be fine here too.”
Hannah smiled at the beautiful sound of their crystal glasses clinking.
For a brief second, she was truly happy and excited for her mother. Hannah would miss having her around, but Lucile had seemed a lot more relaxed since she had made her decision.
“Now, Hannah, there’s a reason I invited you here tonight,” Lucile said after taking a sip of champagne.
“Okay,” Hannah replied, leaning forward.
“As you know, your father loved this opera company.”
Hannah nodded slowly.
Lucile pursed her lips. “And you know he started the foundation to support young talent.”
Hannah nodded again. The foundation had been her father’s pride and joy, and its continued existence had been a specific wish in his will.
Lucile put down her glass. “I have taken over his duties since he passed away.”
Hannah arched an eyebrow. Her mother was always so busy with all sorts of charities. Hannah hadn’t realized her mother’s work included activities related to her father’s foundation.
Lucile reached over the table and grabbed Hannah’s hand. “Now it’s your turn to honor your father’s wishes, dear.”
Hannah’s eyes widened. She quickly swallowed the champagne.
“Excuse me?” she said after a cough to clear her throat.
Lucile stared at her, her expression serious. “You need to take over these responsibilities now that I am moving back to Europe.”
Hannah rubbed her chin. She didn’t like where this was going. The foundation supported young opera singers, and Hannah did not want anything to do with opera. She hadn’t inherited her parents’ love for the art form – at all.
“I don’t understand. What responsibilities?” she finally asked.
Lucile pulled back her hand and shifted in her seat. “Not that many, really. You have to attend certain events. The foundation staff handles the rest.”
Hannah glared at her mother. “You know I hate that type of stuff!”
Lucile sucked in her lips. She was getting annoyed.
“Mom,” Hannah pleaded and pushed some strands of her copper hair behind her ear.
It took a while for her mother to speak up again. “The foundation carries your name. It’s time to take your responsibility.”
Hannah scowled, hurt by the remark. She knew she was still a bit… Well, she always called herself young at heart. But she had never shied away from hard work and responsibility. Ever.
As a kid, Hannah had helped out in her mother’s chocolate store. By the time she was 15, she was spending every spare moment working alongside Lucile.
And once she had graduated from college, she had helped her mother grow the business into the impressive chain of prestigious stores it was now.
Hannah sniffed and met her mother’s gaze. “I have always worked hard,” she stammered.
“Yes, you have,” Lucile immediately replied. “But you’ve always pretended we are a normal family. Small business owners who worked hard and got lucky. But we are not, Hannah. Your father was a very important man. This gave you plenty of opportunities other people could never even dream of.”
Hannah sighed. She had heard this speech many times before. True, she never had to miss a thing in her life. But she had always felt she had earned these opportunities by working hard and never taking anything for granted.
“I don’t see how spending my time supporting the entertainment industry is ‘taking up responsibility’” she snapped.
Lucile huffed. “Seriously, Hannah, don’t pretend this is some Broadway hit show.”
Hannah downed the rest of her glass. She thought of the bottle of amazing Scottish single malt that was waiting for her at home. She glanced at her watch to check the time.
When she looked back up, her mother was staring at her angrily. Hannah couldn’t take it anymore.
“What kind of events?” she relented.
Lucile took a measured sip of her champagne. Her hand was shaking a bit.
“The opening of the new season. Young artist recitals. Some meetings with the young artist we support. Maybe even some interviews together,” she said measuredly once she had put her glass back down.
Hannah clenched her jaw. “Press interviews?” she sighed.
She thoroughly hated being in the spotlight at socialite events like tonight’s performance, but dealing with the press? That was ten times worse.
“Oh, it won’t be that many. If any at all,” her mother replied, shaking her head. “The press rarely cares.”
Her blue eyes bored into Hannah’s. “The most important thing is the meetings with the young artist we support.”
Hannah sighed. “What kind of meetings?”
Her mother was playing with one of the napkins that lay under the glasses. “Your father wanted to do more than other patrons do. He wanted to be a mentor for these young people.”
Hannah had no idea what that meant. She arched an eyebrow, waiting for her mother to explain.
“You have dinner together now and then. Or a drink. You attend some of their recitals and opera performances. You help them any way you can,” Lucile continued. “I always enjoyed meeting these artists, actually.”
“But … I’m thirty-three, mom,” Hannah said, “How can I be a mentor to some super talented opera nerd?”
Lucile frowned. “Hannah, please. This was really important to your father.”
Hannah closed her mouth. When her mother stated something was important to her late father, it basically meant it was time to shut up and do whatever her mother wanted her to do.
Lucile glanced around, almost as if she wanted to make sure no one was eavesdropping. Hannah felt her cheeks starting to burn. Was she embarrassing her mother? Her chest tightened.
Her mother waved at the waiter after spotting the young man servicing an elderly couple two tables away.
“Another glass?” she asked Hannah.
“Yes, thank you,” Hannah mumbled, still feeling the sting of her mother’s disapproval.
Lucile motioned for the waiter to bring them two more glasses.
Hannah looked down at her hands. She hated disappointing her mother.
“So, for the coming two seasons, the grant has been given to a young lady,” Lucile stated.
“Her name is Miss North. She was admitted to the Met Young Talent Development program and the Emsworth Foundation funds her training and stipend.”
Hannah’s mother inspected her perfectly manicured nails. “I have not met with Miss North,” she said thoughtfully. “I thought it would be best if you took over immediately.”
Hannah took in a deep breath, trying to suppress the surge of panic in her chest. Out of nowhere, the waiter put down two more glasses on the table. It gave Hannah an extra moment to compose herself.
“So, what do I say to this Miss North, mother? I don’t know anything about opera,” she said once the waiter had left.
Lucile wrapped her fingers around the stem of the champagne glass. “You know a lot about running a business. I’m sure Miss North will find that useful. Being successful in the opera world also requires business skills.”
“It does?” Hannah asked, rubbing the back of her neck.
She had always assumed these artists were paid by foundations and art programs.
“Yes, it’s a business as much as any other in this world,” her mother sighed.
Hannah bit her lip. She still hated all of this, but she guessed she did know enough about running a business to help someone out.
“When do I have to meet this Miss North for the first time?” she asked.
“In a couple of months. August,” Lucile replied. “I’ll have Charlotte coordinate with your assistant to set up the schedule.” Her gaze was a lot warmer now.
Hannah frowned and wanted to say something, but her mother raised a finger to indicate she wasn’t done speaking.
“Charlotte will book the mandatory engagement, and performances, and she’ll also set up a schedule for your dinners with Miss North. I’m sure she’ll send you her bio as well. I suggest you read it before you meet Miss North.”
Hannah crossed her legs. “Okay,” she relented.
Lucile smiled. “Thank you,” she said and sat back. “This is really important to me, Hannah. This is how you keep your father’s legacy alive. He would be proud to see his daughter walking in his footsteps.” She raised her glass again.
Hannah swallowed with difficulty. Lucile rarely told her she would have made her father proud. Her success in business certainly never had earned her that compliment. Why the hell was this opera thing so important?
“Let’s finish our glasses and head home. I’m getting a bit tired,” Lucile declared.
Hannah nodded and tried to smile at her. It was her mother’s last night at this damned opera house after all.
Later that evening, Hannah collapsed onto the couch. After a goodbye hug in the lobby of her mother’s building, Hannah had the car service drive her home.
She had wanted to get out of her pants, blouse and blazer as soon as she possibly could. She had taken a long and hot shower and then poured a glass of her favorite single malt.
She sniffed the glass in her hands. The peaty scent easily found its way up her nostrils. God, she loved that smell. She let the glass rest on her chest, loosely holding it with one hand, and raised her phone with the other.
She didn’t want to think about what she had been forced to agree to tonight. Checking her email would keep her busy until she was relaxed enough to go to sleep. She scrolled through the long list of emails in her inbox with her thumb.
She read the oldest email first. Most of the messages were about the new store that was about to open in Boston in a few months. A quick scan of the updates told her there were no unusual issues for now.
This would be the 12th Leroy Chocolates store and her team had gotten used to the frenzy that went with it. Opening a store had become a structured process, rather than the wild, crazy adventure it used to be.
Hannah sent off a few quick replies with an OK on some of the solutions suggested by her team. She decided she would look at the artwork for the new spring chocolate packaging tomorrow.
That task required a fresh and sober mind, and hers was neither of those. She took another sip of whiskey and let the liquor roll around in her mouth. The burn was exquisite. She licked her lips.
Hannah was about to put her phone down when her eyes fell on a new email at the top of the list.
“Seriously?” Hannah muttered.
She glanced at the clock in the upper corner of the screen. It was almost 1 AM. Why was her mother’s assistant emailing her in the middle of the night?
A sudden, loud purr made Hannah turn her head. Her tomcat Charles stood beside the couch, looking up at her.
“Hey catsanova, come here.” She padded her belly. The cat gave her his best ‘yeah right’ expression in return.
Hannah knew there was no use in trying to convince him. She put down on her glass on the floor next to the couch. She petted Charles’ head and opened the email. The subject line was ‘Miss North.”
Hannah furrowed her brow. “They want me to hang out with some diva,” she mumbled, talking to Charles. He replied with a whiny squeak. Hannah was too curious about the email to notice it. She read Charlotte’s email.
“Dear Miss Emsworth,
Here’s the information on Miss North. Below, you will find Miss North’s biography, links to her most recent recitals and some official pictures. Please let me know if you need anything else.
I will contact your assistant Suzy to find some suitable dates for your first dinner with Miss North.
Hannah exhaled in frustration. She ignored the PDF file and links under Charlotte’s name and tapped on one of the attached images instead. It opened immediately.
Hannah was surprised to see a stunning young woman in an elegant, purple evening gown. Her lips were bright red, her brown eyes filled with emotion and both of her arms were raised into the air dramatically.
Hannah’s eyebrows shot up in appreciation. “Well, at least it’s a gorgeous drama queen,” she confided to Charles. He gave another loud, unhappy squeak.
Hannah looked down at him and giggled. “What is it? You want to be an opera singer too?”
Charles stared back at her with wide yellow eyes.
Hannah rolled her eyes at her furry friend. She locked her phone and dropped it on the couch. While pushing herself up, she grabbed her drink from the floor.
She emptied it in one big gulp and padded across the room. “Come on, let’s get some sleep, Pavarotti.”