The answer to that was simple. It was deja vu all over again or rather Victor reminded her of Richard. They were obviously both forceful men used to getting their way, both easy to laugh and both very appealing. But there the similarity ended or at least she deemed it so. This man, this slick big city dude who had no rational reason to be in Catalpa Valley was nothing at all like her down-home-country-boy Richard. Apart from all that she was, after all, still married to Richard and would forever be.
She ripped her hand out of Victor’s firm clasp not angry at him but at herself for allowing herself even for a second to imagine this person could be her Richard. Realizing too what just happened in the market, she allowing him to pay for her groceries and to make Margie and anyone else who had spotted them holding hands to assume they were dating, made her cheeks grow warm with shame.
“Oh, Mr. Romanoff, I’m so sorry. You paid for my stuff. I’m used to my husband doing it. I..... How much do I owe you?” she said awkwardly. She hated to admit she momentarily thought of this stranger as Richard but there it was. She wondered vaguely if this would count as cheating on Richard.
“Did I do that? I didn’t even notice,” Victor said chuckling.
“Well, I have to pay you back,” she said fumbling in her purse for her wallet.”
“Can you bake?” he asked suddenly as he turned towards his car, opened the back door and placed the grocery bags within before closing it again and opening the passenger side.
“Excuse me?”she said blinking up at him with a rather confused expression on her face.
“If you bake me two dozen cookies we’ll call it even,” he told her. “And if you bake my favorite kind, chocolate chip, I’ll buy your groceries for a month.”
“Excuse me?” she asked again, utterly baffled. Why, she wondered, was he taking her groceries? But then, she reminded herself, they were technically his since he paid for them.
“I haven’t had home-baked cookies in over three years,” he said wistfully as he gestured for her to take her seat.
She glared at him. “Are you expecting me to go with you?” she asked, incredulous.
“Dinner, remember? We’ll get your car afterwards,” he stated calmly.
She couldn’t believe the audacity of this man assuming she would fall at his feet and do his bidding. He must have her confused with Margie or those self-indulgent bimbos he used to date.
“I never agreed to dinner with you, Mr. Romanoff. I don’t know you. You could be an axe murderer for all I know!” she declared vehemently. She had succeeded in making Victor laugh uproariously again.
He clicked his key ring opening the trunk and motioned for her to look as he leaned on the car with his long legs crossed at the ankles. “Go on. I’ll buy your groceries for a year if you find an axe in there or any murdering tool for that matter,” he said looking quite amused.
That only made her feel stupid but she was still very wary about going to dinner with him. She had always been nervous around men, all men except for Richard and her brother. Richard had been the only man in her life and, for her own peace of mind, she wanted to keep it that way. She would just feel safer that way. Victor Romanoff was very male. There was no denying it. And being very male he made her extremely nervous.
Violet recalled his insistence that this wouldn’t be a date because neither of them were interested in romance. But was it possible? Could men and women really be just friends? But what was she thinking? They weren’t friends either. There was still the fact that she knew nothing about him except that he is Simon and Ronnie’s real father. Thinking about those two little boys torn from their father by divorce saddened her. She knew the hurtful effects of divorce all too well.
All these contradictory thoughts flashed not only in her head but also were clearly printed on her expressive face. Victor watched with fascination. He had never been able to read anyone so clearly. He could tell she was annoyed, scared, apprehensive, perhaps a bit angry and sad but of what and why and how in the world could she feel all these emotions simultaneously?
But more important of all, did she truly suspect him of ulterior motives, of wishing her harm? Seeking to remedy this he reached into the car, opened his briefcase and extracted an address book.
“Tell you what, let’s see if we have some mutual acquaintances who can vouch for me,” he said casually as he pondered how to tell her he knew her brother without her thinking it was a set up. He opened the book to the A’s and showed her the first name on the list. “Okay, Anderson, Phil and Rosie. They own the bed and breakfast in Meridale. Know them?” She shook her head. “No?” He continued down his list.
“Atkins, Frank and Mary, really nice people. They own the bakery over in Clifton. Know them?” Again she shook her head. “No, huh? This may take a while. Unless....” He decided to throw caution to the wind hoping to dear God a tornado wouldn’t come and swallow him up. “Well, do you have a brother or sister who might know me?” he said as casual as he could.
“No sister but I do have a brother. Freddy Norton but you couldn’t...” Her eyes widened at his broad smile. “You know Freddy?” she asked incredulous.
“If it is the same Fred Norton whose office is right next to mine. Great guy. He came to me when he had a dispute with a neighbor. We settled out of court. Here,” he said handing her his cell phone. “Call him up to verify... he’s number nine on speed dial. We’ve become very friendly. Oh, and ask him if I did a good job. I like honest feedback,” he said confidently.
“Um...okay,” she mumbled astonished. She reluctantly pushed nine and waited for the connection. “Hello, Laurie, it’s Violet...oh, I’m fine. I was hoping to talk to Freddy if he’s not too busy... Thanks.”
She glanced at Victor. He wore a smirk, a very confident smirk, like he had a little secret. Richard used to do that all the time when he was teasing her. A funny fluttering started in her chest just as her brother said Hello in her ear.
“Hi, Freddy... no, I’m fine. I have a friend of yours here that wants to say hello.” She gave the phone back to Victor and listened intently.
“Hello, Fred, this is...”
“Hell’s bells, Victor! You did it! You met my sister. How’d you manage it? Do you like her? Does she like you?”Freddy asked eager and excited as anything.
“Really? I didn’t know that. Yes, we just met at the supermarket,” he replied in a calm voice tinged with humor. “I invited her out to dinner and she just wanted someone to verify I wasn’t an axe-murderer.”
Freddy groaned and Victor laughed again. “Yes, she is a kick in the pants... she’s even funnier than you, Fred. Didn’t think that was possible. You told me you had a sister but you never told me who she was. Funny how I should find her on my own, don’t you think?”
“You are good! She’ll never think I asked you to do this. You are genius! Victor, if you can get her to go out with you...I’ll... I’ll... give you my first born!”
“Yes, if you insist,” he said with a chuckle. “ It was good talking to you. Tell Laurie and the kids I said hi. Take care.” He handed the phone back to Violet with a huge grin on his face which she knew spelled doom for her.
“Hello?” she spoke with mounting trepidation into the phone.
“Violet, this is awesome! I’m so glad you’re finally getting on with your life and dating,” Freddy said exuberantly. “You couldn’t have picked a better guy. Victor is great.”
“He’s really a good guy, Vi. I haven’t heard one bad word about him except that he’s too handsome. I don’t see that being much of a problem unless he attempts to steal my Laurie. What do you think?” Freddy said positively gleeful.
He was enjoying this entirely too much, Violet thought grumpily. She could almost hear him smirking over the phone. This rankled her. “I wouldn’t know about such things. It’s of no concern to me,” she replied her teeth clenched.
“You need someone to get you out of your funk.”
“I’m not in a funk!” she shrieked, indignant.
“Give me a break, Vi. Dating Victor will snap you out of it. Mark my words.”
“No, that’s not what it is. It’s not a date. We’re just friends... I mean... if, uh...we go...out,” she muttered annoyed more with herself than with anyone.
“He’ll treat you right because he knows I’ll kill him if he tries anything so don’t worry,” he said completely ignoring her protestations. “So, behave yourself and show him you are as charming as I’ve been bragging.”
“Bragging? What have you been...”
“Oh, stop! It’s nothing...just that you’re the best sister ever,” he said dismissively and quick as lightning changing the subject lest he get himself in trouble. “And really, he’s not an axe murderer or I wouldn’t trust him with my precious Molly, you know, and she adores him. All the kids do. How bad can he be, huh?”
He had a valid point, she thought irritably. Kids were always the best judges of people but still this felt oddly like manipulation. “Well, it’ll be on your head then if I wind up dead in a ditch!”she exclaimed heatedly.
“I can guarantee that if you wind up in a ditch it’ll be because he can’t keep his eyes off you,” Freddy said chuckling. “My big sister’s the prettiest girl in town except for my Laurie of course.”
“Keep it up and I’ll call the whole thing off!” she hissed into the phone.
“Have a good time. I’m sure you’ll be very good friends,” he said laughing before hanging up.
She gave the phone a quailing look then handed it over to a very smug looking Victor before reluctantly saying, “I guess I have no excuse not to go.”
She only realized she held her breath as he came around to the driver’s seat. He smiled brightly as he buckled his own seatbelt and started the car. How could she tell this man without insulting him that she needed to have her personal space to feel comfortable? He was intruding into it rather forcefully. She felt very nervous indeed. Freddy’s assurances did nothing to quail her fears.
Violet looked at the plush interior of the car and almost gasped. She had never been in anything so luxurious. She glanced surreptitiously at Victor and suspected his suit alone cost more than she made in a month. Everything about him screamed money. What in the world was she doing with Mister Made-of-Money?
She suddenly recalled her skirt was winkled and a baby had spit up on her shoulder just that afternoon leaving a slight stain. These clothes were not exactly good enough for a place like the Mount Claire. This, as odd as it seems, made her quite happy.
“I’m not really dressed for such a nice place,” she informed him hoping he would call the whole thing off.
“Would you like me to take you home first so you can change into something more appropriate?” he said in his usual solicitous manner as he pulled out of the parking lot.
“Well, I don’t think that would be very proper!” she said her temper instantly flaring. “ I don’t know how others do things and I truly don’t care. I, on the other hand, am very old-fashioned. I don’t have perfect strangers in my house, ever, but especially while I change clothes.”
Victor suddenly beamed. “You think I’m perfect? You are so sweet. Only my mother ever told me that. Thank you, you just made my week.”
Taken aback she simply stared at his profile speechless. That wasn’t at all what she meant.
“I think you look fine,” he continued. “But if you insist we can go elsewhere...oh, yes, I forgot you didn’t want to go to the Mount Claire because it reminded you of your husband. I’m sorry.”
“That’s not true. I mean...” She looked out into the snow drifts along the parking lot biting her bottom lip as she thought of Richard and that last night out with him. It had been their anniversary and two weeks later he was gone but it was a great memory, one she’d cherish eternally.
“I guess I’m not like most people. I like remembering all the good times I spent with Richard. Some people would rather I forget but that’s just not me. I don’t ever want to forget all I had with him and I never will,” she said quietly earnest.
She shrugged, her emotions all in a tangle. “You’re the one that has to live with the embarrassment of being seen with me.”
He smiled, relief flooding through him. “I think I can handle that.”