“How is the family, Carlos?” Victor asked warmly as he helped Violet off with her coat.
“All well, thank you, Sir.”
They were shown to their best table and fussed over quite a bit. Perhaps Victor was famous, Violet mused. “I’m sorry, but didn’t you say you had never been here before?” she asked curiously. “Everybody here seems to know you.”
“They do. What I said is that I wanted to try it. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been here before,” he answered as he waved to the man at the bar.
Utterly confused and looking every bit of it she said, “Is this lawyer double-speak? I’m not fluent in that.”
He laughed. “Your brother’s right. You are a kick in the pants.”
“What did Freddy say to you?” she asked looking extremely curious.
“About what?” he said bracing himself for the worst. Would she catch on? Please, no!
“Over the phone. You said you didn’t know something,” she said, a suspicious expression on her face.
He gave a careless shrug before saying the first thing to come to him. “He says I have a distinctive voice, that he recognized it immediately. I think I sound like everyone else.”
“No, Freddy’s right. I’d know your voice anywhere.”
He gave her a penetrating look. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing, I wonder?”
She thought for a moment then said, “Good if you like being recognized over the phone but bad if you make crank calls.”
He laughed again then glanced at his watch. “What’s it been? Less than an hour since we started talking at the store and I’ve laughed more with you than I have this entire month. I knew you’d make a great friend.... just like Freddy. He’s the only other person that can make me laugh as much.”
“Have you known Freddy long?”
She made a funny face. “Do you often answer a question with a question?”
He laughed again. “Sorry, must be the lawyer in me. That and I don’t much like talking about myself. I’m a rather poor subject, you see,” he replied.
She made a even funnier face. She very much doubted that!
“But to answer your question,” he continued as he smiled to a passing waitress who beamed at him. “It’s been several months, almost a year I’d say. About the time I opened my office here.”
“And why in the world would you open a law office here?” she asked before she could stop herself.
Taken slightly aback he gazed at her thinking quickly for something other than the real reason which was his secret desire to be closer to her. “Well, why not? It’s a beautiful, peaceful town and the people here have been very friendly.”
“But you can’t have too much work here. I mean....Catalpa Valley’s hardly a thriving metropolis,” she said frowning slightly.
He grinned. “Well, that’s just it. I’ve grown rather tired of the hustle and bustle of city living. I wanted a place I could relax and... well, believe me, I could use a slower pace now in my old age.”
She scoffed. “Old age?”she said disbelieving her ears. She doubted he was much passed forty. “If you think this is old age I should start my funeral arrangements.”
Victor laughed. “Okay, okay, now that I’m older and hopefully wiser. That better?” he asked. “You sure make me laugh. You might just end up being my favorite person if you keep it up,” he said happily.
Violet gaped at him not at all liking the sound of that.
“Now, what’s with that face? I’m sure loads of people have called you their favorite person. I’ll bet Richard did.”
“That’s different. He was my...” She stopped abruptly and narrowed her eyes, suspicion evident in them. “How do you know my husband’s name?”
“You told me in the car. Don’t you remember? I guess you really do have Old Timer’s Disease,” he said smirking. “Or maybe I should just call you Dory.”
“What? What’s wrong?” he said alarmed.
Stunned beyond anything she realized Richard and Victor were two peas in a pod. Then she shook her head at such a notion. Victor was nothing like her Richard! “You know...Dory?”she said looking positively dumbfounded.
He smiled. “Not personally, but, yes, of course. Who doesn’t?”
His elegant eyebrows arched in surprise. “What do you mean why? Finding Nemo was a very popular movie.”
“Well, yes, but your boys aren’t of the age to watch silly cartoons so why would you....”
“Oh, well, I have another source of knowledge in that area,”he replied giving her a sly wink.
She stared at him in wide-eyed wonder not at all understanding.
“Molly,” he said by way of explanation.
“Molly?”she repeated in confusion.
“Your very adorable niece, remember?” he prompted.
“You mean you know her that well?”she asked astounded.
“Very well. As a matter of fact....we have a secret, Molly and I, but I think I can trust you with it,” he said with a slight smirk on his lips. Intrigued Violet leaned forward as he did the same and in a conspiratorial voice he added, “We’re engaged.”
Violet’s eyes grew wider still.
“It’s true, this Christmas. I think she really liked the pony castle I got for her so she asked me to marry her. I did tell her we’d have to wait until she’s a bit older, at least ten,” he explained trying to look serious but failing miserably.
Violet burst out laughing and he joined in. It was only when the wine steward came to their table that they managed to stop. Victor greeted the young man as if they were the best of friends seemingly speaking in perfect French. He then picked out something and performed the ritual of tasting, pronounced it “magnifique” and the man departed.
She suddenly frowned recalling how the conversation started. “Did I really?” she said.
“Did you what?” he asked.
“I don’t usually mention Richard. It seems to bother people when I talk about him. I think it reminds them of their own mortality,” she replied with a weary sigh.
He just barely refrained from sighing himself, in frustration. So, they were back on her dead husband again, were they? He forced his irritation away and smiled. After all he had nothing to complain about. He was finally here with Violet. What more could he reasonably ask for?
“I can see that happening but as I’m quite aware of my own mortality, you can tell me everything about him. I think I might have talked to him once,” Victor said casually as he opened the menu.
“Really? How do you know it was him?” she asked, again wide-eyed with wonder.
“I saw a man pick up your boy at the park after baseball practice. I just assume it was Richard,”he replied with a careless shrug.
“How do you know it was my son?” she asked, now suspicious.
“My boys told me. I told you they played little league together. Simon’s a year older then Kenny and Ronnie’s a year younger. I think Ronnie’s the same age as your daughter. Sophie is her name, I seem to remember. I also remember him saying she was in his class once.”
“Fifth grade,”Violet told him nodding her head.
“Yes, that’s right. I think he had a crush on her,” he whispered conspiratorially.
Violet stared at him, astonished. Sophie had once confided that she had a crush on Ronnie. She found this so strange but not as odd as this man having once met her Richard.
“So, you spoke to Richard?” Violet asked her curiosity getting the better of her.
“Idle chit-chat. We were both at the concession stand during a game. Don’t even know what was said. Seemed like a nice guy. We could have been friends I suppose,”he said thoughtfully. He wondered if that might impress her or simply annoy her.
“He made friends at the drop of a hat. Everybody loved him. You probably could have been friends,” she agreed before carefully taking a sip of the wine. She’d never had wine that good.
“Do you like the wine, Violet? It’s one of my favorites,” he said as he took a sip.
She frowned again. “I don’t remember telling you my name either,” she said accusingly.
“That’s because you didn’t. Don’t look at me like that. I’m no stalker,” he replied calmly.
“Just because you say it that’s supposed to convince me?” she said heatedly.
Blushing a bit she took another sip before saying, “I don’t know you. No one actually knows anyone, really, even when they think they do,” she said defensively.
He watched her fiddle with her napkin. She certainly looked nervous. “I suppose that’s true. Very true in some cases. In my line of work I see it all the time. People can indeed fool you but in my defense I heard you on the phone say, very clearly, ‘Hello, Laurie, this is Violet’ and Fred’s mentioned you in passing several times. Then there’s Molly and Jimmy with Auntie Violet this and Auntie Violet that. So, yes, I know who you are now. Plus, unless you go by a different name than your children, your surname should be Bennett.”
She pressed her lips together and said nothing.
“You look disappointed that I came up with a plausible explanation,” he said, his expression wry. “I’m thinking you are determined to find something bad about me so I may as well tell you right off the bat. You don’t have to struggle or dig too deep to find my flaws, Violet. I’m divorced. That alone should tell you everything. I was a rotten husband and a terrible father.”
Violet glanced up at him shocked. It struck her that he would say such a thing about himself and that there was so much misery in his eyes. After all these years he was clearly still hurting from the divorce. She felt a tug on her heart for him. She knew she shouldn’t ask but curiosity got the better of her.
“How exactly were you a rotten husband and a terrible father?” she asked cautiously.
He sighed and closed his eyes for a few seconds before clearing his throat. “I thought what made a good husband and father was providing the family with everything they could possibly ever want regardless of whether they truly needed them. My wife didn’t need the fancy clothes, the jewelry and expensive cars and my boys certainly didn’t need every toy in the world but they got them. I made sure of it. What they did need was me, around to watch them grow, to play with them, to read to them, just to be there. But I was on the high road to being a very successful lawyer and that blinded me to almost everything else. By the time I figured that out they were gone. For a brilliant lawyer I was pretty dumb.” He sighed wearily.
Violet knew divorce hurt everybody but only just then did that really sink in as she stared at Victor. Without thinking she reached out and placed her hand on his. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
He smiled looking at her slim fingers resting ever-so-lightly on his large hand. She still wore her wedding band, a simple unadorned circle of white gold. It seemed to suit her. He looked into her beautifully expressive eyes and insanely got the urge to lift her hand to his lips. How he wished he had been the one to place that ring on her finger.
“I told you before, Violet. It wasn’t your fault. It was all my doing. I tried fixing things, of course, but it was too late. It took a long time for me to get any sort of relationship with my boys. They barely knew me. How could they when I was never around? It was no wonder you thought I was just their uncle. I wasn’t even that to them, really. It didn’t help that my ex-wife married Andy almost before the ink dried on the divorce papers. He took over dad duty. I was permanently replaced,” he said bitterly.
Her throat constricted so that she couldn’t speak. Instead she squeezed his hand feeling miserable for him. It didn’t even bother her when he grasped her hand like a lifeline. In that moment she knew him perfectly, knew exactly how he felt.
“Now you know what a horrible person I am. Worse than an axe murderer, don’t you think?” he said, frowning.
She shook her head. “You’re not horrible. You just made a mistake,” she said earnestly.
He glanced up at her and smiled . “Anyone ever call you a Polly Anna?”
She gaped at him, astounded. “Yes, Richard did, all the time. He said there were only silver linings and no black clouds in my part of the sky.” She quickly withdrew her hand and fussed needlessly with her napkin, feeling somehow exposed and foolish for having revealed that.
How silly of him to feel bereft. It was just her hand after all and he wanted, if truth be told, to hold all of her and not just physically. He wanted her heart. Her heart, however, he could plainly see was very much engaged elsewhere. Nothing to be done about that.
“I believe Richard’s right. He and I must think alike. What did he do for a living?” Victor asked, though he already knew.
“Fireman,” she replied remembering him looking so handsome in his uniform, so tough, so cocky. That familiar ache started in her chest making her vision blur. She blinked quickly.
Victor saw pain and longing clearly on her face. He had to stop himself from reaching for her hand as she had done for him. From her it was a comforting gesture but he suspected she wouldn’t see it that way coming from him.
“Did he die in the line of duty?” he asked gently.
She nodded as she played with the silverwear. “He saved a little girl from a burning house.”
“I’m sorry, Violet,” he said sadly.
With a valiant effort she smiled. “Not your fault,” she said brightly.
“I suppose not. You said you came here with Richard just before he died?”
She gave him a real smile this time and pointed to a table by the window with the grand vista of Lake Cramer or rather it would have during the daytime. It was too dark to see it now. “We sat there. It was almost summer, our anniversary. The Lilacs had just finished blooming and the Klondike Azaleas had just come out. We could smell their incredible perfume even from in here. It’s so beautiful here during the summer. We used to stroll through the gardens before dinner,”she said wistfully. “And after dinner we would watch the moon reflected on the water and count the stars as they came out.”
Victor gazed at her transfixed. She seemed transported to another realm of existence when speaking of her husband. What must it be like, he wondered, to be so loved? “It is very pretty around the lake. I keep my boat here. The boys like to water ski.”
Violet giggled. “Sophie, too. She was such a tomboy. Still is actually. Nothing like her girly mother.”
He couldn’t deny that. Violet was indeed feminine in the best sense. “Boys love a tomboy. They’re such fun,” he said absently as he glanced to a nearby table. “Don’t look now but there’s a couple to your right that’s been looking at you since we got here. I think they’re trying to catch your eye. Are they friends of yours?”
“And how will I find out when you just told me not to look?” she said pointedly. She casually glanced, recognized them and shyly waved. “Paul and Fran Thurman, “she muttered behind her wine glass. “Passing acquaintances. They go to my church and surely now I’ll be the gossip for Sunday. It’ll be all over town within a week that I’m dating you. That’s all I need! I knew I shouldn’t have come,” she said bitterly, her cheeks burning with indignation.
“I doubt they would bother with such a silly thing as that,” he said dismissively.
“You don’t know small town gossip,” she said anxiously. “They can make an innocent meal turn into a sordid affair in a blink of the eye. Oh, God! What have I done,” she mumbled miserably.
“Violet, it’s not as bad as all that. We’re friends that’s all. I’ll go tell them right now if you’d like,” Victor said reassuringly.
“It won’t matter. Nobody cares about the truth. They would much rather make up their own stories, tarnish reputations, ruin lives.”
She scoffed. “Sue them for what? Being busy-bodies?”
“It’s called slander, defamation of character and I can make people quail even outside the courts. Believe me.”
She stared at him believing that statement wholeheartedly. He was a very large, powerful looking man and he did look just then rather imposing. Add to that the might of the law and he must be formidable indeed.
“Would you mind?”she said all of a sudden.
“Mind?” he asked confusedly.
“If I introduced you to them as my lawyer. I know it’s a lie but...”
“If it will make you feel better. Come on, let’s do it,” he said getting up and helping her out of her chair.
“But... what should I say?” she said now nervous.
“Hello, Paul and Fran Thurman may I introduce you to my brother’s lawyer friend Victor Romanoff. He’s thinking of joining our church so we’ll probably see a lot more of him,” he said quietly steering her to their table.
She gaped at him. “But... we don’t have to make up wild stories like that,” she said in an adamant whisper.
“It’s not such a wild story. Fred asked me to come just a few weeks ago but I’ve been too busy. I’ll be there Sunday.”
Before she could reply they were standing beside their table and she had no choice but to say exactly what he had told her. After a bit of idle chitchat they returned to their table.
“I think you are safe for now,” he said.
“What do you mean for now?” she asked with obvious trepidation.
“Well, eventually you will start dating,” he commented carefully. She shook her head violently, surprising him. “Of course you will. You’re still so young and very pretty. Any guy would be lucky to have you.”
“That’s hardly the point. I had it perfect with Richard. That only happens once in a lifetime... if you’re lucky. Some people don’t even get that,” she said softly.
She sighed and stared off into space as she always did when talking of Richard. “That would take approximately two weeks of uninterrupted time for me to thoroughly explain.”
He chuckled a bit. “I can take my vacation at anytime, just say the word,” he told her.
She giggled but swiftly sobered. “We’re two rather pathetic people, don’t you think? We’re here pining over what was, what wasn’t and what will never be again.”
He couldn’t exactly argue with that, although--God help him-- how he wished he could! But no matter. He was determined to make himself perfect for her because, unlike Violet, he wasn’t giving up.