Violet stood with pursed lips and a basket over her arm. She perused the pathetic excuses for tomatoes grimacing. Tomatoes weren’t supposed to look like peaches without the fuzz. They should be bright orange-red, she mused irritably. She remembered the beautiful, heirloom Brandywines she had grown that past summer. To be forced to take these plastic things had her cringing. But what did she expect in the dead of winter?
“Not to your liking?”
The deep, male voice so close to her ear made her jump. With heart pounding Violet looked up into a most handsome face. Piercing dark eyes fringed in thick curling lashes, a classically straight nose, high cheekbones and sensual lips which at present smiled pleasantly down at her. He towered over her by about a foot possibly more. He was ever so slightly familiar looking. She frowned wondering if she knew this person.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, his deep voice gentle and oh-so-soothing.
She continued to gaze up at him transfixed. Had she seen him somewhere before? By the looks of him probably the cover of GQ . He wore an expensive suit and reeked of wealth, sophistication and cultured living. What in the world was this guy doing in Catalpa Valley?
His heavenly cologne drew her in. She realized too late she was staring. Blushing slightly she looked back to the tomato in her hand.
“In my opinion, these are rather hideous,” she answered nervously.
“I’ll bet you grow your own and these are a poor substitute,” he replied smiling more broadly.
“Too bad summers are so short around here. I suppose you hate that.”
Taken aback she stared at him aghast. How in the world had he known that? How could he possibly know the short growing season was her greatest lament?
“You just look the type,” he added as if she had asked the question aloud.
“Excuse me?” she said, confused. Perhaps she spoke without realizing it?
“You look the type to take solace in a garden. I bet you grow heirloom varieties, too. That makes all the difference, you know,” he answered simply. He smiled again and added, “I bet you cry when an early frost zaps your tomatoes on the vine.”
Astonished and not knowing quite how one should respond to such a statement Violet hurriedly turned back to the tomatoes, picked a few dropping them into a bag and proceeded to the spinach with her basket in her hand. The man, she noticed, had neither cart nor basket and seemed content to follow her around the produce section, carrying a copy of the Wall Street Journal. He seemed to be there for no other reason than to talk to her. Or should she say stalk?
“If you’re that particular about your produce, I should take you to this all-night fruit stand in the city,” the stranger continued casually. "You can get great stuff there."
She didn’t much care for his thinking he could take her anywhere but curiosity got the better of her. “All-night fruit stand?” she asked, skeptical that such a thing existed.
“Yeah, pretty wild, huh?” he said with a chuckle. He picked up a better looking bunch of spinach at the back beyond her reach and handed it to her. “I guess it’s for people who get a craving for mangos in the middle of the night.”
She took the spinach from him, deciding grudgingly it was indeed the best looking bunch and stuffed it into another plastic bag before transferring it to the basket. Funny he should say mangos, Violet thought. She could truthfully say she only once had a craving for fruit in the middle of the night and it was another tropical fruit, pineapple. She had been pregnant with Sophie at the time. She recalled quite vividly Richard springing out of bed in an instant and rushing out to get some for her until she reminded him all the stores were closed and that finding fresh pineapple was close to impossible in Catalpa Valley.
Violet always suspected that pineapple craving may have been the reason Sophie ended up going to school in Florida. She had gotten a taste for the tropics through prenatal pineapple. A slightly wistful smile formed at the thought of her daughter. How she missed her. She glanced at the stranger beside her and grew instantly alarmed. He was staring at her with his own wide smile.
“What?” she asked apprehensively. “Why do you smile like that?”
Surprise registered on his features for a split second but quickly vanished. “I smile because you smile,” he replied with an easy tilt of his elegant head, much like an appraiser of art may view a priceless painting.
Her heart jumped in her chest. Why was she reacting like this? She had nothing to fear here in public but still....what did this man want from her? “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude but is there a particular reason for you talking to me? I mean.... I don’t know you, do I?”
This had the effect of making the stranger laugh. “Talk about rude! I do apologize. My name is Victor Romanoff,” he said and he held out his hand which she took rather reluctantly. It was large and smooth, not at all like Richard’s who always had callouses and were rough enough to sand wood.
Violet frowned, seriously doubting this. For one thing she would have remembered a man this good looking. For another, even though her kids were old enough now to be on their own she still remembered almost every kid Kenny and Sophie ever played against and with. Romanoff, that name did ring a bell. She thought for a bit and the bell rang loud and clear.
“Simon and Ronnie?” she asked and saw his elegantly arched eyebrows lift in pleased astonishment.
“I’m impressed, you remember my boys,”he remarked in whole-hearted delight.
“Don’t be too impressed,” she retorted dismissively. “ I only remember that which is mostly useless to me. I’m getting Old Timer’s Disease something awful.”
He laughed and said, “I doubt that.”
Completely aghast at herself, she felt her cheeks grow warm again. Why in the world did she tell a total stranger something like that? She cleared her throat and in the vain hope of sounding composed and not utterly embarrassed said, “Yes, I remember Kenny saying that Simon and Ronnie were brats which I thought rather amusing coming from another brat. But I supposed at the time that they could recognize each other. You know, takes one to know one,” she said with a careless wave of her hand.
Victor laughed again and she pointedly continued, “I was under the impression, however, that their dad was Andy.”
His face instantly fell. “Step-dad,” he said gruffly. “When we divorced, my ex-wife moved here from the city and remarried. When I got too lonely for the kids I moved here, too.”
In an instant, sadness enveloped her like a dark shroud. “Oh, you’re divorced. I’m so sorry,” Violet said the sincerity obvious in her voice.
Surprised, Victor stared at her a few seconds, smiled with warmth and said, “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t your fault.”
“No, it’s just...I don’t like divorce, just don’t believe in it,” she told him adamantly, her wide hazel eyes making her look as innocent as a kitten.
“You mean like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?” he asked with a smirk.
“Oh, I believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, just not divorce,” she said matter-of-factly.
Violet couldn’t help but notice he had a very good laugh, a laugh to warm the soul. It so reminded her of Richard’s hearty laugh. How she missed that. She almost wished she had something funny to say just to hear it again. Their gazes locked and fixed for several seconds. With difficulty she snatched her eyes away a faint blush tinting her cheeks pink.
“Forgive me but, I still don’t know why you’re talking to me,”she said, her voice quiet and slightly nervous.
“Funny, I never thought of you as being obtuse. I’m sure you can venture a guess,” he retorted a docile expression on his handsome face.
Had he just insulted her? Then Violet thought perhaps she was a bit obtuse being she couldn’t tell whether or not she had been insulted. She simply shook her head feeling a tad stupid.
“Well, I thought we could go out to dinner and get to know each other,” he replied, his heart thudding so he thought it might give out.
Panic seized her and she shook her head fiercely. “I’m sorry, I don’t date,” she said taking a fearful step backward.
Victor gazed shrewdly down at her for a few seconds. He recalled Freddy saying she would react this way. He hadn’t been wrong. “I said nothing about a date,” he stated, his voice calm and reassuring.
Confused, she started, “But you just said...”
“Dating is specifically for romance and if there is no expectation on either side for anything more than friendship then it is not technically a date,” Victor replied.
Her frown deepened. That couldn’t be true, she thought, could it?
“Yes, it is,” he told her.
“Excuse me?” she asked, a bit shaken. Could he read her mind?
“You were going to ask if it is true and it is. I read it in a book called Dating for Dummies, page 7, paragraph six, line five. Believe me, I read the fine print. Have to. I’m a lawyer.”
Violet made a face. Lawyer, huh? She had yet to meet one she liked. Her brother always sent her lawyer jokes by e-mail. Thinking of Freddy’s hilarious e-mails made her smile again.
“I know them all,” Victor said, intruding on her thoughts.
“Lawyer jokes, I know them all. I have a friend who sends me lawyer jokes by e-mail,” he said brightly.
Violet’s jaw dropped, now certain he could read minds.
“It’s not what you think. I can’t really read minds. There’s no such thing,” he said, totally bypassing the fact that he had just done so. “As a lawyer I’ve learned to read faces and yours is easier to read than a Dr. Seuss book.”
Violet gaped at him totally dumbfounded. The irony was not lost on her. She grew more than a bit unnerved by him. She shook her head after several minutes and asked, “And since you are a lawyer, can I also presume you are relentless?”
A huge grin appeared and chuckling he said, “See? You know me already. As someone once said, this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Casa Blanca,” she whispered gaping at him. She didn’t know what to make of this man. Still shaken Violet moved to the apples hoping he got the silent message. “Go away!”
She dropped her basket at her feet and picked a few Gala, a couple of Granny Smith and one huge Fuji dropping them all into a bag. As she reached for her basket she found Victor had it in his hands.
“Thank you,” she said as she tried to take it back. He shook his head and held onto it. “Are you stealing my stuff?” she asked, indignant. He laughed again.
“Continue shopping, I’ll hold it for you,” he said casually, as if they did this every day. “So, what do you say?”
“About you stealing my basket?” she asked as she reluctantly continued to the carrots and grabbed a bunch placing it into the basket.
“About having dinner with me once you’re finished shopping. I’m getting very hungry. I forgot to have lunch today. Have you been to the Mount Claire? I heard it’s wonderful. I’ve been meaning to try it,” he said in rapid succession.
Violet gazed off into space her hand suspended over the celery. She very much remembered the last time she had been there. Her eyes misted over thinking about it. She blinked furiously and took a deep breath. “My husband took me there for our anniversary just before he died,” she told him quietly.
“Not sad memories. I have very few of those,” she said now staring unseeingly at the neatly stacked broccoli. “The Mount Claire is a very nice place but it’s more a place to bring a date not a friend,” she said before she realized they weren’t even that. She knew nothing of this man and she certainly didn’t want him thinking they could be friends, his Casa Blanca quote notwithstanding.
She had never had a male friend, except for Richard. But then Richard went from friend to boyfriend in one night, or rather ten minutes, hadn’t he? And soon after that they were married. Well, that wasn’t going to be the case here, she thought with supreme vehemence. She wasn’t in need of a friend especially a male one. And as for a boyfriend or husband, well that was a definite No. She was already married after all, and she would be until her own death.
“I’m sure you would much rather bring a date there. I know tons of women in town looking for a man like you,” she said stiffly as she snatched up a bunch each of celery and broccoli and turned towards the basket placing them in.
“And what is a man like me exactly?” he asked curiously, tilting his head as he did so.
“You know, alive and not gay,” she stated simply. He made her jump again when he burst out laughing so loudly several people around them dropped their produce. They glared at them disapprovingly. Her cheeks inflamed she turned away from their glowering and grabbed some cilantro placing that within a bag and into her basket then hurrying away.
“I may be alive and not gay but I’m not available,” he insisted, still grinning and following her with long, easy strides.
Violet stopped dead in her tracks, turned and glared at him, eyes nearly popping out of her head. “If you are not available why are you asking strange women out to dinner? Perhaps this is why you’re divorced!” she chided angrily.
He tried not to laugh but didn’t manage to hide the smirk. “First, I don’t think you’re strange, not at all, and second by unavailable I mean I’m not dating, don’t want to date and will not start to date until I think I can do better than I did the first time around.”
Highly embarrassed, cheeks burning anew, she merely said, “Oh,” turned and proceeded to the meat section. As she put some chicken into the basket she suddenly frowned. “So, if you’re not dating why did you buy Dating for Dummies?”
“Did I say I bought the book? It was given to me by an acquaintance as a joke,” he answered ruefully. “At least I think it was a joke.”
“I didn’t say that. I said I’m not currently dating,” he replied in an even tone.
Violet stared at him for a minute not at all understanding. She turned to the dairy aisle and went to grab a few containers of yogurt until curiosity got the better of her again. “Why?” she asked, abruptly stopping short.
He walked right into her and almost knocked her down. Hastily he grabbed her around the waist to steady her before she fell into the yogurt display.
“Sorry about that,” he said, himself unstead. A bit unnerved he reluctantly removed his large hand from around her tiny waist suspecting as he did so, his hands could probably span her waist with room to spare. She was that little. He longed to try out his theory.
Trying to ignored these arrant thoughts Victor cleared his throat in an effort to sound in control. “After my divorce everybody I knew wanted to set me up with someone who was perfect for me. Their sister, cousin, best friend, neighbor, you name it. I went out a bit but....” He shook his head at the memory. “The women were all brainless and self-indulgent, obsessed with stupid things, designer clothes, Coach bags, Prada shoes, spa treatments, manicures. All they wanted was to be seen going to fashionable places with a successful man who could take them places and buy them jewelry, lots of jewelry. Can you blame me for giving up on dating?” he asked partly exasperated but mostly annoyed.
He sighed wearily and glanced down at the full shopping basket in his hand. He attempted a smile and in as casual a voice as he could muster asked, “Is there anything else?”
Violet blushed crimson. She couldn’t believe her rudeness. She was being terribly nosy. It was none of her business what this stranger did. She bit her lip and shook her head feeling utterly humiliated.
“You sure? No bread or eggs, milk maybe?” he asked solicitously.
“Huh?” she asked looking up at him with a furrowed brow.
“Are you done shopping?” he asked now with an indulgent smile on his face. He loved her bewildered expression.
“Oh. Um, yes,” she replied. He lead the way to the check out counter. What could she do? She followed him and watched in amazement as he greeted the cashier as if they were best friends.
She saw immediately how the normally grumpy Margie brightened at being addressed in such a friendly manner by a good-looking man. She had to stifle a giggle at the obvious message Margie was sending out for all but the most clueless to see. She wanted Victor in the worst way.
They had been talking, or perhaps it could more accurately be called flirting, while the groceries made their way into the two cloth bags Victor had snatched up at the last minute. Margie handed back Victor’s credit card when she suddenly noticed Violet and frowned.
“Are you two together?” she asked menacingly.
Violet, eyes wide, shook her head violently. Victor grabbing the bags with one hand and Violet’s hand with the other said, “It was great seeing you Margie. You always brighten my day.” He then pulled Violet out of the store with him, Violet casting one apologetic glance over her shoulder at the scowling Margie.